Handel Festivals in Göttingen and Halle
With the new edition of George Frideric Handel’s most popular opera „Giulio Cesare“, opera houses now have the opportunity to recreate all four versions of the work and to choose the most appropriate one.
Giulio Cesare in Egitto has been easily Handel’s most frequently-performed opera for over a hundred years. This success is thanks partly to its plot, one of the best-known love stories in history, and partly to the particularly favourable circumstances during its composition: the ensemble at the London opera theatre, able to compete with any other internationally, with the alto castrato Francesco Bernardi (known as “Il Senesino”) leading the ensemble, had been joined six months earlier by the famous primadonna Francesca Cuzzoni; the theatre building had been renovated, and for the first time, Handel had plenty of time to devise his concept for the roles, to let these mature, and then to reject them again.
Studies of the paper used have shown that Handel developed the idea of giving the version of the premiere a clear visible primacy over any possible later alterations which were necessary, for he had his conducting and archive score written on larger sheets from a different paper mill, from which later insertions would then stand out at first glance.
The new edition of Giulio Cesare enables each of Handel’s four versions (of 1724, 1725, 1730 and 1732) to be performed, two of which optionally included the special programmes from benefit performances. The most remarkable of these is the 1725 version, in which Handel reconceived the trouser role of Sesto for the famous tenor Francesco Borosini. This also allows us to study Handel’s working method in developing his role concept.
The libretto shows the Roman dictator Caesar in a positive light. He instructs his opponent, the Egyptian tyrant Tolomeo, about how he should deal with his opponents: he reconciles himself with the widow and son of his enemy Pompeo, murdered by Tolomeo, he is generous and just, decisive, but also diplomatic, contemplative, conscious of the limits of his power and receptive to art and nature.
At least one aria is devoted to each of these facets of his character, and there is an accompanied recitative for his philosophising about the frailty of human existence.
Handel’s autograph shows how this character portrait developed in text and music during the work on the score. Here are two examples of this: an aria originally intended for the first act was initially moved to the second act, but ultimately replaced there too. In both cases this led to the character role becoming sharper and more richly nuanced: Cesare’s circumspection in an aria with solo horn about the behaviour of hunter and prey; his dialogue with nature in a duet with the solo violin. It is very probable that in the process, Handel responded to the wishes of the influential main protagonist Senesino. Both arias are amongst the jewels of the opera.
But the real main character of this opera is not the title hero, but Cleopatra. In her role, Handel succeeded in shaping the development of a character through music. Here, the composer disregarded the libretto and asked his librettist to exchange two aria texts and to extend an accompanied recitative: Cleopatra had successfully used her beauty and charm to make Cesare fall in love with her and win him over in this way as an ally in the struggle with her brother for power in Egypt. When she brings him into grave danger by so doing, it suddenly becomes abundantly clear to her that she loves him, and that he is more than a mere tool to her.
The spirited aria which Handel had already composed no longer did justice to the tragic situation in which she now finds herself. He arranged it for the vengeful Sesto, whose father Tolomeo had murdered. Instead, Cleopatra was given a great tragic aria of the kind which Handel had previously reserved for male singers. But this change had consequences for the preceding scenes: in order, for example, to emphasize the abruptness of this change, Handel set Cleopatra’s preceding plea for beauty addressed to Venus anew: less restrained, and instead full of coquettishness.
Handel’s ability to rearrange arias for new purposes and other characters is so masterly that the result not only meets the needs through the instrumentation planned for each case, but mainly even surpasses the original. But Giulio Cesare became an operatic masterpiece because of the new role concept for Cleopatra.