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George Frideric Handel created Giulio Cesare in Egitto in London in 1723/24 when he was at the height of his success as a composer of Italian operas. The premiere at the King’s Theatre on Haymarket on 20 February 1724 was a particular triumph. Giulio Cesare remains a mainstay of the opera repertoire today. One reason for this may be that the historical main protagonists continue to fascinate us, but another may well be that the score Handel wrote for it is among his most inspired. Handel’s librettist Nicola Haym adapted and shortened an existing Italian libretto since London audiences did not want to sit through a five-hour opera: three hours was enough for them. During the preparations the cast of singers changed several times, requiring Handel to constantly rewrite individual parts. In the end, the premiere boasted the famous castrato Senesino as Cesare, a singer celebrated all over Europe for his voice and stage presence. Cesare appears here as the ideal hero and lover and every aria presents another facet of his character. In his recitativo accompagnato Alma del gran Pompeo he displays melancholy and magnanimity, since in it he respects and mourns his adversary. The role enabled Senesino to demonstrate the full range of his acting and singing capabilities. The portrayal of Cleopatra by Francesca Cuzzoni, one of the most acclaimed prima donnas of her day, was no less impressive. The Egyptian queen evolves from a self-assured, determined young woman to a ruler who has gained in wisdom through love and mortal danger. Her performance as virtue to charm Cesare is extraordinary. For it, Handel did not compose the dazzlingly virtuoso aria that might have been expected; instead, he wrote a simple melody of indescribable beauty: V’adoro pupille is regarded as one of his best arias. Her Piangerò in Act III, a heart-rending farewell to life, is similarly compelling. Almost half the music in Giulio Cesare is reserved for the two main protagonists: in terms of virtuosity, expressiveness and dramatic power their numbers represent a succession of highlights virtually unmatched in Baroque opera.

© Theater an der Wien

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