Tomorrow evening (Saturday 25th February), I’m off to London for a performance by English Touring Opera of Giulio Cesare, impeccably timed to coincide with London’s Handel Festival. I was slightly bemused to discover that it was to be staged at that doyenne of music halls, the Hackney Empire, which does suggest more Carry on Cleo than Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. However that would be wrong, as not only is the Hackney Empire often acclaimed as London’s most beautiful theatre, and a key example of Victorian and Edwardian architecture (by no less a person than Nicholas Pevsner), Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto to give it it’s full title owes very little to Shakespeare, but rather to contemporary historians including Caesar himself, in this story of the Civil Wars of 47-48 BC, and Caesar’s journey to Egypt – told you that there was a hint of Carry on Cleo – which also followed the same route up (or should that be down?) the Nile.
Looking for something for this week’s MusiCB3, I did a quick search for musical anniversaries, and was delighted to discover that Saturday’s performance of Giulio Cesare lies very close to the anniversary of its premiere. In fact I will be watching it just a year short of its 300th anniversary. The libretto was written by Nicolo Francesco Haym, a frequent collaborator with Handel, who based it on an earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani, whose libretto had been previously scored by Antonio Sartorio, 50 years earlier. Sartorio’s opera, premiered not long after he had gained a plum job in Venice was immensely popular. Judging by this aria, I can understand why it was so well loved.
Intriguingly much of Sartorio’s earlier career was spent in Hanover, where he was employed at the court of John Frederick, Duke of Brunswick. The Duke of Brunswick was the uncle of King George I, during whose reign Handel set up home in London. Could George I have heard the Sartorio musical? Perhaps he loved it for Sartorio’s Hanover connections? Might this be why Handel decided to ask Haym to use and adapt the libretto?
Whatever the circumstances, the opera was premiered on 20th February 1724 at the King’s Theatre on the Haymarket. The theatre had started life as the Queen’s theatre during the reign of Queen Anne, before changing name on the accession of George I. Although the theatre on the current site is not the same building as that used for the premiere, it retains a form of its name, and has recently changed back from Her Majesty’s Theatre to His. The land on which the theatre stands is still part of the Crown Estate, hence presumably its regal title.
Handel’s Giulio Cesare was an instant hit, and continues to be one of the most performed Baroque operas. Castrato, Senisino, created the role of Caesar, while diminutive soprano, Francesca Cuzzoni played Cleopatra.
Both were to fall out at a later stage with the notably irascible Handel, with Senesoni defecting to another company, where he became good friends with castrato superstar, Farinelli, while Cuzzoni, is remembered by posterity as (allegedly) the soprano that Handel threatened to dangle (or drop if some writers are to be believed!) from a window.
Handel had discovered at the start of his operatic career, that there was an excellent market in selling vocal scores to eager opera goers, and often used John Walsh to produce the scores. For Giulio Cesare, he decided to use the wonderfully named Cluer and Creake (“to be found at the Bible in Jermyn-Street”). Their vocal score was published in July 1724, just a few months after the premiere. However, the opera had proved to be so popular that a pirate version, probably backed by a disgruntled Walsh, was already out on the streets of London by May 1724. You can find the Cluer and Creake edition at the UL in a new collection of first editions held in the Rare Books Room (CCC.77.4). The Walsh / Daniel Wright edition, recognisable by its sub-standard printing, can be found at the Pendlebury – XRa.850.68H.X1 – The favourite songs in the opera of Julius Caesar. London : At the music shops.
The popularity of the opera can be gauged by the fact that a bit of musical piracy was going on amongst London publishers, but also it was revived multiple times during Handel’s life, with publications of excerpts from the opera eagerly bought up by keen amateur musicians. Following a private performance in France, where the opera received rave reviews from Italian opera goers, it was staged several times in Germany. The German version also included ballets with dancing Egyptians at the end of Act I, and eunuchs and concubines at the end of Act II. The Germans even put on a special production to celebrate the 68th birthday of George I in 1727, with additional music by Telemann, and an epilogue featuring the Thames and the dreaming spires of Oxford (Wot, no Cambridge?).
The 19th century was a fallow period for Handel’s operas, but Giulio Cesare was revived in 1922 in Gottingen, and swiftly became one of the most popular of Handel’s many operas. It is frequently performed. In the United Kingdom, Janet Baker, who will celebrate her 90th birthday this year, played no small part in the revival, most notably with this wonderful performance of Va Tacito from a 1984 ENO production. The interplay between voice and horn at the end remains totally mesmerising.
Changes in performance practice meant that earlier modern productions were largely dependent on transposition down an octave to a bass-baritone voice (counter-tenors remained firmly entrenched in the church tradition, but were little used outside it). Post-war, mezzo-sopranos were brought in to sing roles such as Caesar’s back at pitch. It was an unusual return to cross-dressing in performance, away from the boys performing as girls in Shakespeare, and on to girls performing as boys in 20th century Handel.
More recently the rise of the counter-tenor has meant a return (generally, though not always) to the gender specific casting of Handel’s time, with counter-tenors regularly cast in the former castrato roles of Caesar and Ptolemy. There is a helpful list of recordings and DVDs of productions with variant casting on the Giulio Cesare Wikipedia page.
While Handel’s music has lost none of its beauty or power, and with some stand-out performances from singers such as Janet Baker, many of the productions of the 20th century have been undeniably rather silly. One wonders what would Handel’s audiences have thought – did they too think their productions rather bizarre? Or is this purely a modern take on music that we love, but a theatrical ethos that we fail to understand?
One of my favourite productions is this one filmed in Copenhagen in 2005 with the inimitable Andreas Scholl. The production is undoubtedly slightly batty (note the audience’s reaction at the rise of the thrones), but you can cut the tension with a knife, and although batty it perfectly portrays the battle for supremacy between the would be conqueror and the Egyptian king. Watch out for Christopher Robson‘s performance as Tolomeo. He doesn’t sing or say a word, but there’s no mistaking his thoughts (and it’s not looking good for Caesar). Enjoy.