George Frideric Handel
Giulio Cesare
Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym

Premiere: King’s Theatre, London, 1724
Handel’s most popular opera—both in his own lifetime and today—depicts the momentous meeting of Julius Caesar ("Giulio Cesare" in Italian) and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. This grand and ancient subject might suggest a vast, Cecil B. DeMille-style epic, but Handel’s operatic masterpiece takes the opposite approach. The opera explores the inner lives of larger-than-life subjects with insight and elegance in a score full of arresting subtleties, dreamy trance-like melodies, and vocal heroics. Handel worked within (and helped define) the conventions of opera seria, "serious opera," a structurally formal and decorous genre built primarily around a series of solo arias. He wrote the role of Cesare for the singer Senesino, one of the most popular of the castrati—men who had been surgically altered before puberty to retain the vocal purity of a boy’s high notes, which were strengthened by the projection power of an adult male. But Handel’s operas—and Giulio Cesare in particular—are much more than stylized opportunities for showing off vocal pyrotechnics. The composer managed to transform the opera seria format from a constraining dramatic framework into a compelling means to examine thoughts and feelings through magnificent music.

The Creators
George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) was born in Germany, trained extensively in the music capitals of Italy, and spent most of his brilliant career in London. His great choral works have remained extraordinarily popular with the public up to the present day, although his operas disappeared from the world’s stages for about 200 years. In the late-20th century, a widespread reassessment of Handel’s operas brought these works to the attention of modern audiences. The libretto for Giulio Cesare, written by Nicola Francesco Haym (1678–1729), was based on earlier librettos that had been successfully adapted for other operas in Italy. Haym was also a composer, and the excellent musicality of the opera’s words contributes much to the work’s overall power.

The Setting
The opera is originally set in 48 BC in cosmopolitan Alexandria, then the capital of Egypt. The encounter of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra at a defining historical moment has captured the artistic imaginations of everyone from Shakespeare to Hollywood filmmakers, and the legend of a leader who was superhuman in intelligence and skill has persisted through the ages. Cleopatra is another figure who straddles the worlds of history and legend: smart, beautiful, and ultimately doomed. The opera focuses on the first meeting of these towering figures, just after Caesar had defeated his rival Pompey the Great at the battle of Pharsalus to establish himself as the sole ruler of the Roman world. At this time, Cleopatra was co-ruler of Egypt with her brother, the pharaoh Ptolomy XIII (Tolomeo in the opera). David McVicar’s new Met production places the action in a post-colonial setting that includes elements of Baroque theater and 19th-century British imperialism to illuminate the opera’s ideas of love, war, and empire building.

The Music
The orchestra is smaller than those of later Baroque operas, and the musical and dramatic messages are conveyed with more economy than later composers used—but with no loss of aural richness or emotion. The remarkable solo horn accompaniment in Cesare’s marvelous Act I aria "Va, tacito," for example, recalls the sound of a hunter’s horns as he moves in on his prey while simultaneously suggesting the maneuvers of Julius Caesar’s impressive intellect. Cleopatra is as seductive as she is intelligent: the onstage band (strings, winds, a harp, and a theorbo, or large lute) softly accompany her ravishing Act II aria "V’adoro, pupille," creating a radiant aura around her vocal line to help convince us of her irresistible charms. However fascinating the orchestral details may be, though, the drama and beauty of Handel’s score are conveyed chiefly by the singers. Dialogue and action are generally confined to the recitatives. The solo arias that make up the majority of the score, then, are commentaries on the action, deliberately stopping dramatic time in order to explore a given moment, idea, or feeling in great depth and from every possible artistic angle.

Giulio Cesare at the Met
Giulio Cesare
had its Met premiere in 1988 in a production by John Copley. The cast included Tatiana Troyanos in the title role, Kathleen Battle as Cleopatra, and Sarah Walker as Cornelia, with Trevor Pinnock conducting. Jeffrey Gall, as Tolomeo, was the Met’s first countertenor. The production was revived in 1999 with Jennifer Larmore as Cesare and the impressive pairing of mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and countertenor David Daniels as Cornelia and Sesto. The 2007 revival, with Daniels and Lawrence Zazzo sharing the role of Cesare, marked the first time a man sang the title role at the Met. David McVicar’s new production, again starring Daniels, opposite Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra, opens April 4, 2013, with Harry Bicket on the podium.