In Handel’s most popular opera, “Giulio Cesare,” there’s a little history and a lot of showbiz.
At the beginning, Julius Caesar, presumably about 54, arrives in Egypt and is greeted with some spectacle as the fabled Roman emperor he is. Caesar has just defeated his rival, the Roman General Pompey, and is about to enter Alexandria’s ancient city.
According to history, Cleopatra was 20 at the time and politically ambitious. Married to and co-regent with her younger brother Ptolemy, as was the custom, Cleopatra wants to rule as queen. She quickly envisions an alliance with Caesar to make that a reality.
The rest is operatic tinkering.
In 1724, Handel’s version of the story was a smash in London. What’s little known is that he and his librettist, Nicola Francesco Haym, borrowed liberally from an earlier opera of similar title: “Giulio Cesare in Egitto.”
These days, we’d call it an adaptation, but in the early 18th century, lifting material from earlier works was not unknown. Since historic tales were all the rage, both librettists named their ancient sources in what was then called “the program’s argument.”
In 1676 in Venice, Antonio Sartorio and his wordsmith Giacomo Francesco Bussani collaborated on their “Giulio Cesare.”
It too, was a hit. The story of a beautiful Egyptian princess seducing a powerful emperor had already inspired a string of dramatic stage versions. Between 1628 and 1800, more than 50 plays dazzled believing audiences. Sartorio’s operatic version and the Handel-Haym adaptation capitalized on popular enthusiasm.
Loosely based on Plutarch’s Lives and other distant texts, both operas get the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey right. They also get the bare outlines of the Caesar-Cleopatra romance/alliance. Ptolemy’s murder of Pompey, his unfortunate gift to Caesar, and the tragic hounding of Pompey’s widow are all another matter.
Well, why not? The story bubbles over with passion, treachery, blackmail and betrayal. And lest you think it’s all blood and darkness, following the conventions of the time there’s a happy ending with villains gone and not one, but two sets of smiling lovers.
It’s true that Haym gamely lifted most of the book from Bussani. But Handel’s librettist also eliminated a large number of minor characters and a silly sub plot. Instead, Haym added a tragic secondary theme regarding Pompey’s widow and her stepson. Handel-Haym also reduced Sartorio-Bussani’s exhausting 65 arias and duets to a mere 33.
That said, “Giulio Cesare” is still a Baroque fantasy of an ancient historical tale with set pieces, plenty of spectacle and that jolly, predictable conclusion.
Enter 21st-century technology and a lighter, more ironic point of view.
The Metropolitan Opera has imported Glasgow-born stage director David McVicar and his winning 2005 Glyndebourne Festival interpretation. Retold as a stylized, witty tale of British colonialism, the new “Giulio Cesare” sports military officers dressed in natty red uniforms and Cleopatra and company as 1920s flappers.
The world view is more tongue-in-cheek than Rome-in-harem. This is exactly how to energize and renew the old art form of grand opera.
Soprano Natalie Dessay vamps as Cleopatra, beguiling countertenor David Daniels as our favorite Roman emperor. The villains, Ptolemy and Achillas, will be sung by Christophe Dumaux and Guido Loconsolo.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.