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George Frideric Handel
Dusselforf, Deutsche Oper am
September 30 - October 27
Sydney, Opera Australia, October 5 - 30
Paris, The‚tre des Champs …lysees, October 16
Melbourne, Opera Australia, December 1 - 15
Jacobs, Larmore, Fink, Schlick, Rorholm
Caballe, Tourangeau, Paskalis, Gramm
Leitner, Popp, Ludwig, Berry
Rudel, Treigle, Sills, Forrester
Julius Caesar/Opera Journeys Mini Guide Series
(1996), Christopher Hogwood
Triple Smoked Sturgeon
DEAN & DELUCA - Purveyors of Fine Food,
Wine and Kitchenware
The libretto for
Handels Julius Caesar by Nicola Francesco Haym was adapted from renditions
of the story popular in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Far from the
dark tale of shadowy morality and political intrigue concocted by William Shakespeare less
than a century earlier, it is a simple heroic narrative in which the put-upon Cleopatra is
saved from the clutches of her evil brother Ptolemy by the dashing Caesar. He has come to
Egypt in pursuit of arch-rival Pompey, who has just fled Rome in the wake of the civil
war. Its straightforward plot and easily recognizable, clearly defined characters without
psychological complexity made it ideal for the opera format favored most by this composer.
Handel traveled to Italy in 1707, where he composed the first of his
series of Italian operas. Inspired by the work of composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti,
and intrigued by the still relatively new musical form, he embarked on a campaign to
spread this brand of opera to England and Germany. The genre he admired most was Opera
Seria (literally serious opera), a very formulaic variant in which exposition
systematically alternated with reflection. The plot was driven by sung dialogue which
could feature comic as well as dramatic moments, but each scene was unfailingly followed
by an aria in which a principal character reflected upon what they had just experienced.
It was a repetitious format, made even more so by the strict organization of the arias
themselves. These could only express a single emotion and were required to use an
elementary verse structure featuring harmony, counter-harmony, and then embellishment.
Handels work with Opera Seria became synonymous with the Royal
Academy of Music, a body founded in 1719 to bring Italian opera to England. Handel was its
Chief Composer and Master of the Orchestra. The academy enjoyed great success
for some ten years. It oversaw the first staging of Julius Caesar in 1724, as
well as thirteen others by Handel himself. By 1729 this body was closed down however.
Public boredom with the rigidity and perceived intellectual pomposity of Italian opera had
already led to the massive success of The Beggars Opera. Hummable, folksy
songs were in, calculated, mathematical composition was out. Even a revival of Julius
Caesar in 1729 could not save the it. Handel doggedly fought to keep Italian opera in
the public eye, but ill health and continued failure eventually forced him to leave the
managerial duties to others and return to full time composition.
Ironically there is a lightness in tone and clarity in expression in Julius
Caesar which makes it eminently watchable today. Opera Irelands current
production has been wittily staged by director Elaine Padmore in a manner which strikes a
strong contrast with their concurrent production of Don Carlo.
Julius Caesar gleefully follows the rigid formal patterns of the Opera Seria
genre and presents its overly simplistic story without recourse to self parody. Yet the
production is extremely self-conscious, very much aware of the conventions which define
the opera, and eager to find seams through which to express a postmodern sensibility.
To begin with there is the casting of women in male roles, a neat,
twentieth century conceit (and an ironic reversal of the seventeenth century one) which
gets around the lack of castrato performers. Handels score was composed at the
height of the castratos popularity, and a fey, young Caesar performing in
Mezzo-soprano was very much the order of the day. The cross-casting throws some of the
masculine posturing typical of these characters into reflective relief, with Anna Burford
making a very effective Caesar. Her mixture of heroism and macho-ism is delicately played.
It works especially in contrast with the character of Cleopatra (portrayed by Irish
Soprano Regina Nathan), whose femininity is of a rather more passive variety than would be
Much of the historical interpretation is highly questionable anyway, as
is the infusion of a religious sensibility which blurs Christianity and Roman mythology
without ever drawing on the specificity of the Egyptian variety. The high-voiced males and
females filling male roles add enough symbolic complication to the mix to take the pain
out of some of the more glaringly obvious and simplistic distillation of fact and ideology
in the libretto.
Handels first concern was never the story itself. He was more
interested in the music. The score is conducted with delicate precision by Noel Davies
(conducting the RT… Concert Orchestra), and it is pleasantly complex within the
limitations of the chosen format. Padmore goes so far as to underline one of Handels
obvious passages of orchestral self-indulgence by having one scene staged in eighteenth
century costume while a performer dressed to look like the composer sits at a harpsichord
and dispenses sheets of music to the singers.
None of this prevents the opera from delivering on its most basic
levels. It is well acted and well sung, full of visual invention and aural virtuosity
which is pleasant to see and hear. Designer Bruno Schwengls relatively sparse sets
and props actually match the limited musical palette. Though it lends itself to opulence
given the setting, this story is best told against clean lines and an uncluttered
backdrop, which is exactly what is offered. The performers are a mixture of Irish and UK
singers, with Polish Counter-tenor Artur Stefanowicz making a menacing but suitably boyish
Ptolemy and Dutch Mezzo-soprano Cecile van de Sant providing a heartfelt rendering of
Cornelia, widow of Pompey.
Dublin, November 18, 2001
- Harvey O'Brien