It was first performed in London on February 20, 1724. The opera was an immediate success. Handel revived it (with changes) in 1725, 1730, and 1732; it was also performed in Paris, Hamburg, and Brunswick. Like Handel's other works in the opera seria genre, Giulio Cesare fell into oblivion in the 19th century.
The roles of Cesare and Cleopatra, sung by the castrato Senesino and famous soprano Francesca Cuzzoni respectively, and which encompass eight arias and two recitatives accompagnati each, totally dispose of the vocal capabilities of the singers. Cornelia and Sesto are more static because they are completely taken by their primary emotions, she with pain because of her husband's death and constantly constrained to defend herself from Achilla and Tolomeo, and he consumed by vengeance for his father's death.
Cleopatra is a multifaceted character: she uses at first her womanly wiles to seduce Cesare and gain the throne of Egypt, and then becomes totally engaged in the love affair with Cesare. She has great arias of immense dramatic intensity Se pietà di me non senti (II, 8) and Piangerò la sorte mia (III, 3). Sensual character is described magnificently in the aria V'adoro, pupille, in which Cleopatra, in the guise of Lidia, appears to Cesare surrounded by the Muses of Parnassus (II, 2). This number calls for two orchestras: one is an ensemble scene with strings with sordino, oboe, tiorba, harp, bassoons and viola da gamba concerante.
In the 20th century, it was revived (in heavily altered form - reorchestrated and revamped with the male castrato roles transposed down for a baritone, tenor or bass) in Göttingen in 1922 by the Handel enthusiast Oskar Hagen. Hans Knappertsbusch and Karl Bohm both conducted it in Munich in 1923 and its first American performance took place at the Smith College of Music in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1927. The first British revival of a Handel opera was the staging of Giulio Cesare at the Scala Theatre in London in 1930, by the London Festival Opera Company, singing in English. The young Herbert Von Karajan conducted a production in Ulm in 1933. In modern times, it has proven to be by far the most popular of Handel's operas, with more than two hundred productions in many countries. The title role and the roles Ptolemy and Nirenus were written for castrati, and in modern productions, Giulio is either transposed for baritone or sung by a contralto, mezzo-soprano, or, more frequently in recent years, a countertenor. The characters of both Nirenus and Ptolemy are sung by countertenors.
The work is considered by many to be Handel's finest Italian opera, possibly even the best in the history of opera seria. It is admired for its superb vocal writing, its dramatic impact, and its deft orchestral arrangements.
Giulio Cesare is now regularly performed.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, February 20, 1724|
(Conductor: - )
|Sesto||mezzo-soprano or tenor||Margherita Durastanti|
|Giulio Cesare||alto castrato||Senesino|
|Tolomeo||alto castrato||Gaetano Berenstadt|
|Nireno||alto castrato||Giuseppe Bigonzi|
|Cornelia||contralto or mezzo-soprano||Anastasia Robinson|
|Achilla||bass||Giuseppe Maria Boschi|
2. In March 2005, three recordings were made at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. They became a DVD, published by Harmonia Mundi and released in the fall of 2007. The performance was directed by Francisco Negrin. Lars Ulrik Mortensen conducts Concerto Copenhagen and the vocal performers include German counter-tenor Andreas Scholl in the title role and Inger Dam-Jensen as Cleopatra.
3. The Glyndebourne Festival has published its 2005 summer production, directed by David McVicar and conducted by William Christie, on an Opus Arte DVD, with Sarah Connolly in the role of Cesare and Danielle de Niese in the role of Cleopatra. The production won the 2006 South Bank Show Award for Opera. The period has been moved to British colonial times in the first half of the 20th century and the staging contains elements from Bollywood films.
4. The American director Peter Sellars directed Giulio Cesare as a studio production filmed at DEFA-Studio in 1990. The video recording is based on a production originally staged at the 1987 Pepsico SummerFare held at SUNY Purchase and later presented at the Opera Company of Boston (1987), Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels (1988), and Le Théâtre Nanterre-Amandiers, Paris (1990). It was conducted by his regular musical collaborator Craig Smith. The production was updated to the unspecified future and set in the Middle East. It features the counter-tenor Jeffrey Gall as Cesare, Susan Larson as Cleopatra and Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson as Sesto. It has been issued on DVD by Decca.