To Be read before
Georg Friedrich Handel was born in Halle in 1685 and died in London in 1759. His exceptional musical gifts were apparent from a very early age. Organist in the cathedral of his native town, in 1703 he left for Hamburg, where his first operas were performed in 1705. In 1710 he went to London, where he brought Italian opera to the attention of a public who until then had had very little exposure to it. In 1719, he was named director of the Royal Academy of Music. Three years later he took British citizenship. The theatre was at the centre of Handel’s activities throughout his life. Of the 39 surviving operas all but three were composed for London. Written for an aristocratic public, they retain many of the characteristics of court operas of the period, in particular the use of virtuoso singers. All belong to the opera seria tradition; the work is constructed around recitatives and arias, the principal masculine roles are given to castrati and the use of choruses is limited. Most of the plots are drawn from classical or historical themes, though some make use of the fantastic and supernatural (Alcina, Orlando). Among the most famous are Tamerlano, Rodelinda, Orlando, Ariodante and Xerxes. Towards the end of his life Handel transferred some of his dramatic genius to oratorio (Samson, Jephta, The Messiah); he was able to free himself from the hold of aria da capo and introduce a new vocal writing.
Nicola Franceso Haym’s libretto was to a large extent inspired by that of Giacomo Francesco Bussani, set to music by Antonio Sartorio in 1677. The story is based on Julius Caesar’s visit to Eygpt in 48BC. The libretto mingles the love affair between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, the fight for the throne between the Queen of Eygpt and her brother Ptolemy, the suffering of Cornelia, Pompey’s widow, his son Sextus’s desire for vengeance and the rivalry between Ptolemy and his general Achilla, who both try to seduce Cornelia. It is the fifth opera Handel wrote for the Royal Academy of Music, and by far the most sumptuous in its melodic richness, its variety of styles and the use of choruses, which was original for the period. It is also one of the most dramatic of his works. The character of Cleopatra is drawn with great subtlety. The arias “Se pieta”, “V’adoro pupille” and “Piangero la sorte mia” are among the most expressive Handel wrote. Caesar’s arias make him appear as a man of action. The poignant character of Cornelia’s grief acts as a counterweight to Caesar’s extrovert reactions and Cleopatra’s frivolity: the music attributed to her reveals, behind her desolation, a character blessed with unfailing courage and great serenity.
Giulio Cesare was first performed at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket in London on 2 March 1724.
The work at the Paris Opera
Giulio Cesare entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera on 20 June 1987 in a production by Nicholas Hyntner, with Graham Pushee (Giulio Cesare), Valerie Masterson (Cleopatra), Jochen Kowalski (Tolomeo), Hanna Schwarz (Cornelia), Susan Quittmeyer (Sesto), Philippe Duminy (Achilla), Dominique Visse (Nireno) and Jean-Claude Malgoire conducting. This production was revived in 1988, 1977 and 2002.