KPAC Blog: Metropolitan Opera
1:15 pm
Thu April 25, 2013

'Giulio Cesare' And The Return Of George Frederick Handel

If you're older than thirty you may know something of the unlikely and extremely rare probability of a baroque opera being performed at the Metropolitan Opera. This was sometime in the late eighties, but in musical terms seems a lifetime ago.

To quote Inspector Morse, the opera loving sleuth, "I was horrified to discover that the tickets I had received for Wagner were in fact for Handel!"

I can think of no opera composer of the first rank who has undergone so radical a transformation of fortune as Handel.

In his own time he was revered, rich and controversial. Despite his superhuman vocal fecundity - 42 operas, 29 oratorios and 120 vocal cantatas - and royal support, his operatic production was impeded by jealousy in London that caused the failure of his opera company.

Handle turned then to oratorios, and as they say, the rest is the Messiah and history. He retired rich and famous, buried in Westminster Abbey.

With the arrival of the romantics his reputation fell into decline until a scholar came to the rescue. The philosopher-musicologist Karl Chrysander (1926-1901) devoted his life to the study of early music and the rediscovery of Handel.

Beginning in 1858, and with a little help from Johannes Brahms, he commenced the editing of a new edition of Handel's work from (1858-1902). Building on this monumental labor of over 100 volumes, Handel's return began.

From obscurity to rediscovery and then incredibly to revolution; it was the original instrument movement that went past the popular oratorios and keyboard pieces to the vast output of operas on instruments of the time period.

William Christie, Nikolaus Harnoncourt,  Raymond Leppard, Rene Jacob, Diego Fasolis, Nicolas McGegan and a battalion of great soloists, including Dame Janet Baker, and an army of  newly trained instrumentalist have all tackled Handel material from this era.

  • Members of the Academy of Ancient Music performed a magical evening of Handel in our own Scottish Rite Cathedral with its brilliant acoustics in the mid 1980's.

Now we reap the fruit of this long struggle.

Two operas are usually singled out from Handel's great output: "Ariodante" and "Giulio Cesare." Both have been performed to full houses (I was there) at the Houston Opera and now Caesar comes to the Met, that great venerable barn, after one of the longest out-of-town auditions of all time; its been 290 years since the London premiere in 1724.

If you've seen the cable series "Rome" parts one and two and liked them, you'll love this opera. The plot is a variant of the great miniseries.

Julius Caesar had begun his war with Pompey the Great. He pursues him, after Pharsalus to Egypt. Anthony stays in Rome and does not appear in the opera. 

The plot revolves around the interplay of love and power. Cleopatra is at war with her brother Ptolemy for Egypt. Caesar arrives to find that Pompey has been beheaded, ironically as a gift to him, as the two are good friends, he is horrified at the act and seeks revenge.

There follows about four hours of some of the greatest music ever written. There are several love interests, Cleopatra, Pompey's widow Cornelia, and the always tempting power. for Caesar and and both Curio, Caesar's general, and Achilla, Ptolemy's general, for Pompey's widow Cornelia.

Curio, Caesar's general, and Achilla, Ptolemy's general, both seek the affections of Cornelia, but between both men stand the furious surviving son of Cornelia and Pompey, Sesto, who is also bent on revenge.

What follows are shifting alliances and a ravishing array of arias, duets, ensembles, and recitatives, many with masterful obbligato accompaniment: Cara speme, questo core ( Sesto); Va tacito e nascosto  (Caesar); and the seven and a half minute vocal feast, the duet that closes act one of Cornelia and Sesto:

Son nata lagrimar

I was born to weep, to sigh, and I will mourn forever.

Cleopatra gets an embarrassment of riches including two of the crowning jewels of all baroque music, V' adoro pupille and the endlessly transcribed Piangero :

Piangero la sorte mia,

I shall lament my fate, so cruel, so pitiless.

By the conclusion, Caesar survives an attempt on his life by Ptolemy and leaps from a window into the ocean, only to return. Achillias is denied Cornelia, and it will be Sesto who finally avenges his father Pompey and kills Ptolemy.

Tune into KPAC 88.3 FM this Saturday one hour early at 11 a.m. for the Metropolitan Opera's broadcast of Handel's baroque masterwork, "Giulio Cesare."

Countertenor David Daniels will sing the title role with Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra and Harry Bicket will conduct.