Major Operas | Giulio Cesare in Egitto by George Frideric Handel | Late Baroque

Julius Cesar in Egypt

Handel’s operas usually revolve around the voices and particular gifts of the singers that were available to him. Giulio Cesare in Egitto was created in 1724 as a vehicle for Senesino and Cuzzoni, although the characteristic trademark of Handel’s best operas is that the emotions and experience of the characters are not sacrificed to the virtuosity of the singers.

Although Handel’s arias are an opportunity for the singer to impress his audience, they also function as engaging indications of the character’s dramatic motivation and thoughts.

Handel’s ability to portray character often results in an organically evolving personality. In Act I of Giulio Cesare in Egitto, the title-hero’s arias show progress from pompous arrogance (‘Presti omai l’egizia terra’), anger (‘Empio, dirò tu sei’) to a realization of his own mortality (‘Alma del gran Pompeo’). Likewise, Cleopatra is transformed from a flirtatious stereotype into a genuinely seductive lover in ‘V’adoro pupille’, which features a lush onstage continuo band, before her sincere hopelessness demands our pity in ‘Piangerò la sorte mia’. The secondary roles of the grieving Cornelia and her vengeful son Sesto are also compellingly brought to life, especially in their sublime duet ‘Son nata a lagrimar’.

Composed: 1724
Premiered: 1724, London
Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, after Giacomo Francesco Bussani

Act I

Giulio Cesare is in Egypt and has promised a reconciliation with his old enemy Pompeo, if Pompeo shows himself personally. Achilla, commander of the Egyptian army under King Tolomeo, arrives with Pompeo’s head; Cesare is angered by this. Pompeo’s wife Cornelia and son Sesto are also present; they are distraught and Sesto swears vengeance. Cleopatra, who rules Egypt jointly with her brother, decides to seduce Cesare, while Achilla tells Tolomeo that he will murder Cesare in return for Cornelia’s hand. Cesare, in his camp, is introduced to ‘Lidia’, who is in fact Cleopatra in disguise. Cesare falls in love with her. Cornelia enters and tries to kill herself, but Sesto prevents her. ‘Lydia’ offers the services of Nireno, an Egyptian courtier, to help them find Tolomeo, Pompeo’s murderer. Cesare arrives at Tolomeo’s palace, avoiding ambush. Tolomeo falls for Cornelia when they are introduced, but continues to pretend that Achilla can expect to win her. Cornelia spurns Achilla’s advances towards her; Achilla in his anger imprisons Sesto.

Act II

Cleopatra, as ‘Lidia’, summons Cesare to her rooms; with the assistance of Nireno, he arrives. Meanwhile, both Achilla and Tolomeo try unsuccessfully to woo Cornelia. Guards approach ‘Lydia’ and Cesare; Cleopatra reveals her true identity and prays for Cesare as he leaves to face the enemy. Cornelia sits among the people in Tolomeo’s harem. Sesto rushes in and attempts to kill the king but is prevented by Achilla, who reveals that Cesare has leapt from a castle window into the sea and cannot have survived. He requests his prize, i.e. Cornelia, but Tolomeo refuses. Sesto now tries to commit suicide but Cornelia stops him. The angry Achilla changes...

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