Everything you need to know about Handel’s Giulio Cesare (Caesar and Cleopatra in Eygpt) in one place, right here!
What is the story?
Giulio Cesare is based on events of the Roman Civil War 49–45 BC*. At the opera’s opening, Cesare discovers that his rival Pompeo (whose forces he has just defeated) has been cruelly executed by the Egyptian King, Tolomeo. While Pompeo’s widow Cornelia grieves and his son Sesto vows vengeance, Tolomeo’s sister and wife Cleopatra decides to seduce Cesare to secure his support and tip the balance of power in her own favour.
However, as events unfold, Cleopatra and Cesare realise that they have fallen genuinely in love. Tolomeo’s defeat is now imperative, and the feud between the siblings becomes an all-out war. With alliances constantly shifting, who will emerge victorious?
* The opera ends before the advent of Mark Antony, and does not tell the same story as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Who are the key characters?
Cesare Caesar — leader of the Roman army (mezzo-soprano)
Cleopatra — Queen of Egypt (soprano)
Tolomeo Ptolemy — King of Eygpt, Cleopatra’s brother and husband (countertenor)
Cornelia — Pompeo’s widow (mezzo-soprano)
Sesto Sextus — Pompeo’s son (mezzo-soprano)
Our production also includes the non-singing role of Pompeo (Pompey, played by an actor) who we actually see assassinated during the overture!
What is the music like?
Giulio Cesare was written in the Baroque era (c. 1600-1750). As such, the orchestra features various early instruments including recorder, viola da gamba and theorbo (a large lute), which all help create a very distinctive sound world.
The score is broken up into arias and recitative. During the arias, the plot is paused and a character expresses their feelings in that moment, providing the audience a window into that character’s soul. The connecting recitative (which is essentially sung speech performed with ‘continuo’ such as harpsichord accompanying the singers), contains the plot development. Each of the arias in Giulio Cesare is unique — some with virtuosic vocal fireworks, and some the most sublime that Handel ever wrote.
Certain arias, such as Sesto’s ‘Svegliativi nel core’, follow a popular format of the time known as ‘da capo’ (literally ‘from the top’). This means that the first section returns at the end, but with added musical ornaments improvised on the spot by the singer. Hear an extract below.
What is this production like?
This stunning production by Tim Albery has a multifaceted set (designed by Leslie Travers), which provides the backdrop for both a world of war and a world of sensuality. The stage begins dominated by a Brutalist concrete barrier, which then revolves to reveal the inside of a glittering pyramid — a tomb of gold with a labyrinth of connecting passages within. Candle-like lighting effects mesmerise, and during the opera’s seduction scene, Cleopatra dips her feet in a pool of water in the centre of the set.
Costumes paint the culture clash between the Romans and the Egyptians. The conservatism of the Romans — Cornelia in her formal skirt suit and Cesare, weary and austere, in his muddied, military uniform, contrasts with the electric blue and gold silk worn by Tolomeo and Cleopatra (the only characters in colour).
Tolomeo also dons some alarming six-inch long golden finger nails, symbolising his petty sadism, whilst Cleopatra’s series of hotpants, slips, and later military uniform show her to be not only a siren, but a multi-layered character.
Who was the composer?
Giulio Cesare was written by George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel was born in Germany, but moved to London in 1713 and became a fully-fledged Londoner, totally transforming the city’s cultural landscape through his music.
Handel’s most famous pieces today include his Messiah (heard everywhere at Christmas), Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks, and Coronation Anthems (composed for George II and performed at every coronation since). However, Handel also wrote over 40 operas, which were game-changing for the genre. Previously, opera (especially in London) had simply been a string of arias designed to show off singers’ vocal abilities, but with Handel, gripping storytelling and fully-rounded characters emerged.
A little history
In the 1720s, London was opera mad. Poet and dramatist John Gay noted that “folks that could not distinguish one tune from another now daily dispute about the different styles of Handel, Bononcini, and Attillio” (other composers)!
A group of aristocrats had even founded their own company, the Royal Academy of Music, to secure themselves a constant supply of opera. Handel was appointed Master of the Orchestra, responsible for sourcing the very best soloists and required to compose new work at an alarming rate. Such was the demand that between 1724 and 1725, he produced three whole operas! One of these was Giulio Cesare.
Giulio Cesare premiered at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket in February 1724 (Handel’s main ‘shopfront’ at the time). The opening run was a sensation, with the house just as full at the seventh performance as at the first. Today, it is one of, if not THE, most frequently performed Handel operas. Our version, first heard in 2012, condenses the original three-act structure into two parts, creating a tighter plot with increased dramatic impact.
Did you know?
— Several of the male characters in Giulio Cesare can be sung either by a mezzo-soprano (female) or a countertenor (male singing in falsetto voice). These roles were originally sung by ‘castrati’. Because of the way their bodies developed, ‘castrati’ had unrivalled lung capacity and extremely flexible voices, and were the opera superstars of the day. The practise of castration to produce singers was eventually made illegal. In our production, Cesare and Sesto are sung by mezzo-sopranos, while Tolomeo and Nerone are sung by countertenors.
— The King’s Theatre, Haymarket (where Giulio Cesare premiered) is one of the oldest theatre sites in London — we now know it as Her Majesty’s Theatre, home to Phantom of the Opera.
— Handel‘s funeral in 1759 was given full state honours — he is buried at Westminster Abbey along with Geoffrey Chaucer, Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.
— Handel’s Cleopatra is a particularly complex character. She has six arias, each written to display a different facet of her personality — coquettishness, vulnerability, grief, joy, and more. The orchestration for each supports this: her seductive aria ‘V’adoro pupille’ (‘I adore you, eyes’) is scored for a second set of instruments behind the scenes, contrasting with the orchestra in the pit and ravishing the audience’s ears as well as Cesare’s! Hear it below.