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Handel’s Julius Caesar

“In a sense, an opera is simply a drama sung instead of a drama spoken.”  

– Aaron Copland, What to Listen for in Music


When Julius Caesar opens on June 9th of our 2024 Festival Season, it will have been exactly 300 years and 3 months since its premiere in London. This first production of George Frideric Handel’s opera was an instant success, resulting in 13 sold-out performances during the 1723-1724 season. The opera was produced three more times in the German-British composer’s life, and Handel made changes — some small, others large — each time.

As we look back on this opera, two questions come to mind: why should we listen to this piece and what do we listen for?

When Handel came to London in 1711, his primary occupation was that of an opera composer. During his stay in Italy between 1706-1710, he was introduced to a new style of opera called opera seria. The primary musical focus of this style was on the solo voice, which resulted in arias that usually followed a three-section form, called “ABA” or Da capo, with the second ‘A’ section inviting an element of vocal improvisation. In opera seria, vocal ensembles such as trios or quartets were rare, and the use of chorus was also quite sparse.

There were two functioning theaters in London in 1711: the Drury Lane Theater and the Queen’s Theater in the Haymarket. It is fascinating to note that each theater was conceived and built to support a different genre of opera. The Haymarket Theater was built by English architect and playwright John Vanbrugh, with the purpose of presenting opera seria. Imported from Italy, this new style utilized the Italian language in the libretti, which led to notable and famous Italian singers starring in those productions.

Julius Caesar in Egypt (originally Giulio Cesare in Egitto), to use its full title, was Handel’s fifth opera written for the Haymarket Theater. It featured a libretto by Nichola Francesco Haym, which was based on the events of the Roman Civil War (49-45 B.C.). Handel, who was usually a fast composer, took his time developing the score and delineating the musical characters for this opera. Each of the six principal roles have music that is vocally, orchestrally, and dramatically unique to each character, much like a musical fingerprint. Handel didn’t stop his efforts there — he also regularly broke certain conventions of traditional arias to test the limits of that form.

We see one of the first examples of this after the overture and opening chorus (the first of only three appearances the chorus makes in the entire opera), where Handel used a somewhat shorter form of an aria — a cavatina — to introduce Julius Caesar. With this aria, “Presti omai,” Handel immediately placed Caesar as the main character of the opera. The melody is brilliant in character, with flourishes of ornamentation written into the vocal lines to ensure that all attention is on Caesar.


Another example of musical characterization can be found in Cornelia, who is the widow of Caesar’s rival Pompey. Her music throughout the opera often contains minimal instrumental support, as in her first aria, “Priva son,” includes minimal instrumental support. At other times, her musical character is expressed in the form of an arioso, which combines moments of more recitativelike textures with sung parts, as is the case in her later aria Nel tuo seno. Another element that listeners will hear consistently in Cornelia’s arias is sharp rhythm, which beautifully complements her words throughout the opera; Cornelia often references her identity as a Roman and her arias punctuate the stoicism that is at the heart of her strength 

Cleopatra possibly has the widest range of musical characterization, from the playful opening of Non disperar to the sensuous V’adoro, pupille to the heartbreaking Se pietà di me non senti.” (Interestingly, in “Se pietà” Handel creates an almost Bach-like texture between the melody and the moving bass notes.) While following Cleopatra’s dramatic arch, listeners can easily understand and recognize the different emotional states in which she finds herself throughout the opera.

In addition to the clear character motivations and the striking use of orchestral interludes to connect the story, it is also worth noting the expansion of the orchestra, to which Handel has added four horns. He has also given audiences a delightful treat in the on-stage presentation of a small instrumental ensemble, which takes place during Cleopatra’s first seduction of Caesar. This Act II scene, possibly one of the most beautiful in the history of opera, included an ensemble of nine musicians including harp, viola da gamba, theorbo, string quartet, oboe, and bassoon.  


Handel often featured musicians from his orchestra by giving them solos — two such examples can be found in Caesar’s arias. “Va tacito e nascosto” features a horn solo, which at that time would have been a natural instrument (meaning an instrument with no valves, since valves for brass instruments had not yet been invented). Natural horns had certain harmonic limitations, which impacted the harmonic language of the entire aria. But despite these challenges, Handel was incredibly skillful in creating an even texture between the strings and the featured solo instrument.  

Another example of instrumental virtuosity is found in Se in fiorito, an aria that offers us a different perspective on Caesar than his usual military characterization. Instead, we hear a rather pastoral tune as Caesar sings of his love for Cleopatra. The playfulness in his character is emphasized through the use of a solo violin. The lilting style in which Caesar and the violin share a repeated melody reminds us of a musical gesture that would come into fashion centuries later: the call and response of jazz music.  

I hope that all of these musical examples give you a (condensed) insight into this incredibly complex and beautiful opera. And now, let us revisit answer the question asked at the beginning — why listen to this piece? 

 For me, the answer lies in an in an experience I had after seeing a production of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea at the Oslo Opera House. At that point in my life, I was more interested in composers of the late Romantic period, jazz music, and contemporary music across several genres. (A dear colleague of mine, also a conductor, fondly remembers me lending him an R&B album while telling him that this was the most exciting music out there!) And yet something happened when I went to hear and see Poppea in Oslo. Monteverdi’s music, which was written in 1643, was played with an incredible enthusiasm, freshness, immediacy. It sounded as if it was written yesterday. For me, that is the reason to embrace our musical classics — to lose oneself in the past, get transported to another place and time, and hopefully leave the theater with a new take on music…and perhaps life itself.  


Daniela Candillari