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Composed: 1724
Length: c. 65 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, continuo, strings, and soloists

The Italian opera that George Frideric Handel so avidly embraced was an awkward monster of mazy conventions. In delivering plot and action it was almost anti-dramatic, but in characterization it was rich (if perilously prone to stereotype). The formal pattern of most opera at the time was basically a carefully calculated procession of star turns, the music of which was equally structured and laden with conventional signifiers of affect, emotion, and status. It is no coincidence that the titles of so many operas are the names of the principal character.

That played directly to Handel’s musical strength. Rather than repudiate convention, he transformed it from within, particularly in creating tellingly detailed, fully imagined, and obviously feeling characters. Giulio Cesare is particularly rich in these dramatic portraits, because Handel was writing for an unusually star-studded cast, headed by the castrato Senesino in the title role and Francesca Cuzzoni as Cleopatra.

Handel’s company, the Royal Academy of Music, premiered Giulio Cesare at the King’s Theatre on February 20, 1724, and it received 12 more performances in its opening run. This was a considerable success for the time, and Handel revived the piece in three future seasons (with substantial revisions, as the cast changed). The work had a concert performance in Paris the summer of its premiere, and numerous productions in German states in the following decade.

The plot, as created by Nicola Francesco Haym from a 17th-century libretto by Giacomo Francesco Busani, revolves around the classic love story of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, with lots of ancillary complications. Caesar has come to Egypt in pursuit of Pompey, his defeated rival in a Roman civil war. Cleopatra is ruling Egypt jointly with her younger brother Ptolemy, and both decide separately to seek Caesar’s aid. Ptolemy’s idea is to have Pompey assassinated and the man’s severed head presented to Caesar; Cleopatra tries a more personal approach, in disguise as “Lydia” at first.

The assassination-as-appeasement project backfires badly, and the killer, Achillas, offers to make it good by murdering Caesar. Cleopatra succeeds wonderfully, however, and at the beginning of Act II entertains Caesar at her palace with a pageant featuring herself – still disguised – as the goddess of Virtue. Caesar is enchanted, and sings of his growing passion in the spry aria “Se in fiorito ameno prato,” his expressive melismas on the words “cantar” (to sing), “grato” (pleasing), and “innamorar” (to fall in love) entwined with solo violin.

Later Caesar and Cleopatra (still as Lydia) are exchanging words of affection when the tribune Curio rushes in with news of a plot by Ptolemy on Caesar’s life. Cleopatra reveals her true identity and urges Caesar to flee, an idea that he firmly rejects with the blustery bravura of “Al lampo dell’armi,” an aria in the texture of a trio sonata: vigorous unison violins in duet with the martial Caesar over an athletic walking bass. Caesar rushes out, to offstage shouts for his death, and Cleopatra regrets his bravery in a finely honed solo scene of conflicting emotions, dominated by her fears for his safety. The orchestra emphasizes her agitation in the accompanied recitative, and its support for her lamenting aria (“Se pietà di me non senti”) is a marvel of quietly remorseless pulsation, with drooping first violins (with carefully marked stresses) and an obbligato bassoon part often independent of the bass line.

Reports in Act II that Caesar had drowned in his escape from the assassination attempt prove premature. Caesar washes up out of the sea to relate his adventure in an accompanied recitative, its echoing strings carrying over into his elegantly austere prayer for comfort (“Aure, deh, per pietà”). Meanwhile, Cleopatra’s forces have been defeated by Ptolemy, who orders her to prison. She has another aria of lament (“Piangerò la sorte mia”), this one tremendously moving in its stark simplicity. In its middle section, however, she wakes to fury, imagining herself returning as a ghost to haunt her brother. In a mournful accompanied recitative (“Voi, che mie fide ancelle”), Cleopatra sings a farewell to her handmaidens, only to have Caesar burst in on a rescue mission. Her sorrow turned to joy, Cleopatra exults with vocal fireworks in “Da tempeste il legno infranto.”

Caesar succeeds, of course, defeating the forces of Ptolemy, who is killed in the fallout of a subplot. (Remarkably, Cleopatra is not the opera’s femme fatale. Cornelia, widow of Pompey, is lusted after by several of the men, including Ptolemy. Her son, Sexto, kills Ptolemy to save his mother’s honor and avenge his father.) Cleopatra accepts the crown and scepter of Egypt as a tributary to Rome, and she and Caesar declare their love in a lilting duet (“Caro! Bella!”), their voices curling together caressively.