Julius Caesar in Egypt
Handel, Giulio Cesare
and Opera in 18th Century England
George Frideric Handel was born in Halle, Germany, in 1685 and was brought up in and about the local court of the Duke of Saxe Weissenfels. The Duke took notice of the boy’s musical talent and persuaded Handel’s father to give him a solid musical education. By 1703 he was in Hamburg, an important center of opera, working at the opera house as a second violinist and playing harpsichord in the opera orchestra. It was here that he got a taste for Italian opera and many important opportunities began to arise for him. An Italian journey was next, after meeting one of the Medici Princes in Hamburg who invited him to come and work in his court. In Florence, Rome and Naples he wrote opera, studied, worked with various opera companies and became thoroughly conversant with the Italian style. By 1710 he was ready to return to Germany, where he was engaged as Kapellmeister to the Duke of Hanover, the future King George I of England. That is, of course, where the eventual connection with England comes in to play in Handel’s biography: he traveled to London in 1711 in the entourage of the Duke, and while there his first Italian opera for England, Rinaldo, was produced. It was an instant hit with gorgeous scenery, spectacular stage effects and the brilliant, sumptuous music of a new master of opera. By the time the Duke eventually succeeded to the British throne after the death of Queen Anne in 1714, Handel was fully established as a loyal servant to the King.
There were numerous theatres in London at the time of Handel’s arrival, most of them specializing in straight dramatic plays. As a special treat, these theatres would occasionally present a semi-opera or masque. These were entertainments that were essentially plays but had generous helpings of music, dance and fantastic stage effects…and they incorporated so much of these elements that they verged on opera. They were often based on earlier spoken dramas so, for instance, the English composer Henry Purcell wrote a semi-opera called The Fairy Queen based on a version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. These entertainments were quite popular and continued to be so even through the highpoint of Handel’s Italian opera successes in the 1720s.
It was around 1705 that Italian opera first began to make an impact on the public
in London. This activity centered around the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket where
various and sundry impresarios tried to establish companies to present Italian opera
using, at great expense, Italian singers from the continent. These occasional evenings
of opera were attended by the royal and aristocratic class who had taken the Grand
Tour and had become great fans of opera while visiting its centers: Venice, Rome,
Florence and Naples. They had a particular taste for the sound of the castrato,
male singers who had undergone surgical castration just prior to puberty which kept
their voices in the soprano range. With maturity they were able to produce a robust
and rather exciting quality if we’re to believe contemporary writers. They
were far more popular than any of the other voice types, and typically sang the
heroic roles in Italian opera. The good castrati attained a kind of superstar
status with fans which resulted in their throwing flowers, jewels and themselves
at their feet giving them far more power than the composers who wrote for them or
the impresarios who hired them.
In 1719, under the patronage of the opera-loving King George I, the Royal Academy of Music was established, an institution which was to finally give Italian opera a foothold in London society. George gave the Academy a royal patent and a 1,000 pound-a-year subsidy and a group of aristocrats held stock in the Academy as if it were a public company. Furthermore, subscribers to the opera season were vigorously sought in order to give the new company a solid financial basis. The season was to run from December to June and the composer at the center of the company was to be George Frideric Handel. Handel wasn’t the only composer connected to the company, however. As he was German and part of the newly arrived German entourage of the new King, the directors of the Academy decided that they needed actual Italian composers to work for this new Italian company. The Italian composer Giovanni Porta thus ended up being the composer of the first opera commissioned by the Royal Academy; that opera was Numitore, a version of the legend of Romulus and Remus. But Handel’s real rival at the Academy was Giovanni Bononcini who was discovered by one of the Academy’s aristocratic patrons on a trip to Italy early in the year of its founding.
The rivalry between these two composers was probably more a function of public relations than a real conflict. The founders of the Academy realized that stoking the fire in this way just brought more attention to the company and that, they hoped, would bring more paying customers into the theatre. The theatre was the same Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket, which had been the site of so many failed opera companies in the past. It hosted the Royal Academy from 1720 to 1728 and during this period Handel produced some of his greatest works for the stage. His singers were famous: Senesino, the great castrato, and the sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. With these three international stars and the healthy egos of Handel and Bononcini, there were bound to be fireworks. Rumors of vicious infighting amongst company members flew through London’s salons. Things were particularly tense for the two ladies, Cuzzoni and Bordoni, whose supporters blew their vocal differences way out of proportion. Fits of temper and occasional outbursts finally boiled over in a performance of Bononcini’s Astianatte in 1727 when the two sopranos actually fought onstage. The Princess of Wales, who was in attendance, was quite offended and the season was brought to an immediate conclusion.
The successes of the Academy before its eventual dissolution in 1728 were great. On Handel’s part, he produced a series of operas, truly great works, which rival any grouping of pieces by the pen of one composer in the history of opera. They include Radamisto, Tolomeo, Rodelinda, Floridante and Giulio Cesare in Egitto. The text of this Julius Caesar mustn’t be confused with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Julius Caesar although the libretto deals with some of the same characters. The libretto, crafted by Nicola Haym who was an occasional librettist for Handel and the Royal Academy, was based on an older libretto that was prepared for another composer. The earlier piece was much longer textually than the typical requirements of Italian opera in the 1720s, so Haym had quite a bit of editing to do. But the editing helped focus the action on the three main characters, Caesar, Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy, giving them a variety of arias that characterize their emotions perfectly.
Handel’s usual stable of singers from the Academy were in the original cast, with the castrato Senesino singing Caesar, the incomparable Francesca Cuzzoni as Cleopatra and the castrato Gaetano Berenstadt, a close associate of the composer Bononcini, in the role of Ptolemy, or Tolomeo as he is called in the Italian libretto. As was true of most of the composers of the time, Handel was writing specifically for these voices making it difficult for 21st century singers and musicians without the presence of the unique castrato quality. In lieu of that voice-type mezzo-sopranos and contraltos have been able to sing these parts as ‘trouser roles’, and today we’re lucky to live in the heyday of the countertenor, many of whom now have the same range as those superstars of the 18th century.
Julius Caesar was a much more ambitious project than anything that Handel had attempted up to this point and so he took, for him, a considerable amount of time with the score. 1723 was an important year for him, having received yet another royal subsidy from King George, the responsibility of being music master to the Royal Princesses, and finally settling into the house at 25 Brook Street where he was to live until his death in 1759. There was a certain ease, then, with which he took the composition of the score. A sumptuous, gorgeous score it is with the unusual addition of four horns, recorders, transverse flute, gamba, bassoon and theorbo, a large lute-like instrument, all added to the usual pit band of strings and winds. Caesar was a great success with 13 performances after its premiere in February, 1724, and a similar number of performances in two revivals, first in 1725 and again in 1730. In the current revival of Handel masterworks for the stage, Julius Caesar in Egypt holds the primary position. Its strongly written characters hold the stage today as well as the operatic creations of a Verdi, a Puccini or a Bizet. It is a great piece of music and a great piece of theatre.