Friday, 1 June 2012

Giulio Cesare in Egitto – An Introduction

(The following is a draft entry for The Literary Encyclopedia Online (the completed entry was published online in June, 2012)

The best-known of all Handel’s operas, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724) has been performed more times, in more countries, than any other. A great success in its own time, it was one of the most important works in the twentieth-century revival of interest in Handel’s operas. Oskar Hagan’s version for Göttingen in 1922 was given 220 performances in 38 cities within five years (Dean and Knapp, 507). It has retained its status in the twenty-first century, though all the surviving operas are now known, performed and recorded. Currently there are more than twenty versions of Giulio Cesare available on CD and DVD.

The libretto for the opera was put together by Nicola Haym, one of Handel’s best collaborators, from a range of earlier Italian sources, particularly a work of the same name by Giacomo Bussani.

Julius Caesar has followed the defeated Pompey to Egypt, where the action begins, beside the Nile. Pompey’s wife Cornelia and her son Sesto (Sextus) arrive asking for peace, and Caesar agrees to embrace Pompey. But Cleopatra’s brother Tolomeo (Ptolemy) has sent his general, Achilla, to present the head of Pompey to Caesar as a token of loyalty. A furious Caesar dismisses Achilla with scorn. Achilla falls for Cornelia. Curio, a Roman Tribune, proclaims his love for Cornelia, and prevents her taking her own life, but she is inconsolable, and Sesto vows bitter revenge. Cleopatra, hearing the news, determines to meet Caesar, ridiculing her brother’s claim to the throne. Achilla brings Tolomeo news of Caesar’s disdain and proposes the murder of Caesar (Achilla wants Cornelia’s hand in return). Tolomeo resolves on murdering Caesar. “Lidia” (Cleopatra in disguise) complains to Caesar of her treatment by Tolomeo. Both Caesar and Curio are immediately besotted with her. Cleopatra then overhears Cornelia’s story. Cornelia is determined to take revenge against Tolomeo, but Sesto insists that this is his destiny. Still as Lidia, Cleopatra promises her support. Caesar arrives at Tolomeo’s palace, offering a veiled insult, before being shown to his rooms (where Tolomeo plans to murder him). Cornelia and Sesto are immediately seized as soon as they reach court. Sesto is imprisoned and Cornelia is assigned to the seraglio, where Tolomeo plans to have her. Achilla tries to woo Cornelia who is disgusted by his advances. Sesto is taken off to prison, parted from his tearful mother. Cleopatra has further plans to seduce Caesar, and arranges for him to overhear her singing in a delightful grove of cedars with the Palace of Virtue and the nine muses on the slopes of Parnassus. Caesar hears her aria “V’adoro, pupille” (discussed below). Enraptured, he rushes towards her, but the scene changes and she disappears. However, Cleopatra’s eunuch, Nireno, announces that “Lidia” awaits him in her chambers. Tolomeo now takes over the role of Cornelia’s suitor. She thinks him insane, but he determines on rape if necessary. Alone, Cornelia prepares to hurl herself to her death, but Sesto intervenes. Nireno announces that Cornelia is to go to the seraglio, but suggests a murder plot: Sesto might there be able to catch Tolomeo off-guard. Caesar attends “Lidia” but news of the attempt on his life interrupts them, and Cleopatra accidentally reveals her true identity. Caesar escapes the conspirators. Achilla foils the plot to murder Tolomeo in the seraglio, and then announces the death of Caesar who has thrown himself into the harbour and drowned; Cleopatra is already armed to revenge his death. Achilla asks for Cornelia’s hand but he is rudely rebuffed by Tolomeo, who heads off to engage Cleopatra’s forces. Achilla joins with Cleopatra, but the latter is taken prisoner in the ensuing battle. Tolomeo is determined to subdue his haughty sister, putting her in chains to grovel at the foot of his throne. Caesar, actually alive, having swum to safety, overhears the dying Achilla giving Sesto a seal which will command a hundred armed men; he mentions a subterranean passage which will lead directly to the palace. Caesar rescues Cleopatra, and she heads off to gather her troops for the decisive battle. Meanwhile Tolomeo is forcing himself on Cornelia when Sesto arrives and kills him. The Romans and Egyptians celebrate their victory; Caesar crowns Cleopatra Queen of Egypt and they sing a love duet before a final chorus of celebration.

From the first speech, which cites the famous “Veni, vidi, vici” in the wrong place at the wrong time and in the wrong context, the text offers an inventive approach to history. (Dean and Knapp, 483).

The opera was produced at the height of Handel’s powers, in 1724 (the first of three new masterpieces composed in little more than a year – see the entries on Tamerlano and Rodelinda). The Royal Academy of Music, set up in 1719 for the production of Italian opera was fully established, as one visitor to England noted a month after the first performance of Giulio Cesare: “The passion for the opera here is getting beyond all belief” (Deutsch, 160). The year before, John Gay had written to Jonathan Swift:

As for the reigning Amusement of the town, tis entirely Musick. […] Theres nobody allow’d to say I sing but an Eunuch or an Italian Woman. […] folks that could not distinguish one tune from another now daily dispute about the different Styles of Hendel, Bononcini, and Attillio. […] Senesino is daily voted to be the greatest man that ever liv’d. (Gay, 43)

For Giulio Cesare Handel had not only Gay’s most famous “Eunuch”, the castrato Senesino (who of course played Caesar), but also the most celebrated “Italian Woman”, the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni (Cleopatra, naturally) and a glittering supporting cast. The result was sensational. Another visitor wrote:

The opera is in full swing also, since Hendell’s new one, called Julius César — in which Cenesino and Cozzuna shine beyond all criticism — has been put on. The house was just as full at the seventh performance as at the first. (Deutsch, 160)

The production ran for thirteen consecutive nights, and was revived (with changes) for a further ten performances the following season.

The casting for Giulio Cesare suggests the riot of sexual uncertainty in the operas of the period. Here was a rare opportunity to have a castrato actually play a castrato, as Nireno is an Egyptian eunuch. So, in the first production of February 1724, Giuseppe Bigonzi fulfilled that most logical of castings as “alto castrato”. But the castrati were generally the expensive stars, and Nireno is a minor part. The revisions for January 1725 saw Nireno “cut” to a “mute”. But for the last few nights of the 1725 run Handel revived the role as a singing part, renaming the character Nirena and making “her” a lady-in-waiting to Cleopatra, sung by a female soprano. Oddly, though, he didn’t have to make the sex change. It was quite normal for women to play “male” roles when castrati were in short supply. After all, the male role of Sesto was first played by Margherita Durastanti.

It is difficult, adequately, to summarize the achievements of Handel’s operas in the first period of the Royal Academy. His music shows a mastery of human emotion and dramatic incident unsurpassed in his age. But he also developed a profound ability to portray character in depth. As the highest expression of this art his portrayal of Cleopatra has often been compared to Shakespeare’s.

Cleopatra has nine arias and in them Handel explores every side of her notoriously protean personality: dismissive, rude, playfulness (“Non disperar”); a coquettish enjoyment of the female arts of love (“Tutto può donna”); her optimism, gaiety, and radiance (“Tu la mia stella”); her beguiling graces (“Venere bella”); her capacity for profound tragic feeling (“Che sento?”); her sublime sense of noble pathos (“Piangerò”);  her joyous energy (“Da tempeste”); and her unaffected love (“Caro/Bella”).

But the aria that best reveals her compelling character is “V’adoro pupille”, perhaps the greatest seduction aria in musical history. It has the equivalent force of Enobarbus’ famous speech in Antony and Cleopatra:

The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne

Burn'd on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumed that

The winds were love-sick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,

It beggar'd all description [...] (Antony and Cleopatra, II, ii, 191-198)

Shakespeare, here, follows his source, North’s Plutarch very closely. But Plutarch gives an additional detail: “her voyce and words were marvelous pleasant: for her tongue was an instrument of musicke to divers sports and pastimes” (Antony and Cleopatra, pp.247-8). Shakespeare also economises on the music that attends her. His “tune of flutes” is based on Plutarch’s  “sounde of the musicke of flutes, howboyes, citherns, violls, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge” (Antony and Cleopatra, p.246). Cleopatra’s legendary power is one naturally expressed by the metonym and metaphor of music. In Handel's score it is her song that seduces Caesar. And Handel overtrumps Plutarch with his instruments, as Winton Dean notes:

Handel deploys a double orchestra: a group of nine instruments played by the nine Muses on stage or behind the scenes, including harp, theorbo and viola da gamba, is contrasted and combined with the main body in the pit, the violins of both orchestras being muted. The senses of the audience must have been as ravished as Caesar's. (Dean, 23)

Hearing this music nearly three-hundred years later, the experience is no less “ravishing”.

Works Cited

Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995.
Dean, Winton. Notes to Giulio Cesare, dir. René Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi. 1991.
Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles Black. 1955.
Gay, John. The Letters of John Gay, ed. C. F. Burgess. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1966.
Haym, Nicola Francesco. Giulio Cesare In Egitto. London: Thomas Wood. 1724.
Shakespeare, William. Antony and Cleopatra, ed. M. R. Ridley. Methuen: London and New York.1954.

Recommended Reading

Burrows, Donald. Handel. Oxford: OUP. 1994. (The best general survey of Handel’s life and work (see particularly135-50 for a musical analysis of Giulio Cesare.)
Dean, Winton. “Handel’s Giulio Cesare”. The Musical Times, Vol. 104, No. 1444 (June, 1963). 402-404. (A good introduction to the opera, its libretto, and its early casts.)

Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995. (The most important of all reference works for this period, with an extensive account of all aspects of Giulio Cesare (483-526).)

Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles Black. 1955. (The best documentary source for the facts and opinions of the period – see particularly157-74 for Giulio Cesare.)

Monson, Craig. “Giulio Cesare in Egitto: From Sartorio (1677) to Handel (1724)”. Music and Letters, Vol. 66, No. 4 (Oct, 1985). 313-43. (Gives a comprehensive account of the various libretto treatments of the subject, and their relation to each other