Handel's 'Julius Caesar'

From Houston Grand Opera

WHO'S WHO

David Daniels ......... Juius Caesar

Laura Claycomb ......... Cleopatra

Brian Asawa ................ Tolomeo

Phyllis Pancella ............ Cornelia

Patricia Risley .................. Sesto

Joshua Winograde ......... Achilla

Matthew White .............. Nireno

Nikolay Didenko ............ Curio

Houston Grand Opera Orchestra

Patrick Summers, conductor

David Daniels with Laura Claycomb as Caesar and Cleopatra

hide captionDavid Daniels is Caesar, with Laura Claycomb as Cleopatra, in Houston Grand Opera's production of Julius Caesar.

Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera

Whether you're looking around for a TV show to watch, a film to see or an opera to hear, you're sure to run across something that evokes the splendors of ancient Rome.

On television, the Roman Empire has been found everywhere from the intellectual drama of I Claudius, to History Channel documentaries, to HBO's sensational series, Rome.

Cinema buffs can revel in films ranging from classic movie epics like Ben Hur, Spartacus and The Ten Commandments, to the extravagant digital effects of Gladiator.

And long before movies or TV came along, Rome was a favorite subject for over-the-top operas. In the 18th century, George Frideric Handel turned to the story of Rome's first emperor, Julius Caesar, for one of his greatest operatic blockbusters. But in this case, the most impressive effects weren't in the onstage depictions of Roman pomp and splendor; the true spectacle was the music itself.

In Handel's era, opera was the domain of vocal superstars — singers whose fame rivaled that of today's star athletes and screen idols. So when the composer turned to ancient Rome for the story of Julius Caesar, he put the role of Caesar in the hands of perhaps the biggest star of the day, a castrato who went by a single name, Senesino.

Today, thankfully, such operas are performed without turning young boys into castrati to fill the main roles. In modern productions, those roles are sometimes sung by women. But increasingly, they're taken by the rare vocalists known as countertenors — men, with powerful voices, who sing in the same, high range as female vocalists.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents a Houston Grand Opera production of Handel's Julius Caesar featuring David Daniels, a countertenor who is one of opera's biggest, current stars.

The Story of 'Julius Caesar'

Laura Claycomb as Cleopatra

hide captionLaura Claycomb plays Cleopatra in Houston Grand Opera's Julius Caesar, a production with a decidedly modern flare.

Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera
David Daniels as Julius Caesar

hide captionDavid Daniels plays a swanky Roman emperor, with a gift for the softshoe, in Julius Caesar.

Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera
Patricia Risley plays Sesto

hide captionSesto, played by Patricia Risley (center), is apprehended by Tolomeo's guards.

Brett Coomer/Houston Grand Opera

BACKGROUND: Handel's Julius Caesar recounts the great love story between Caesar and Cleopatra. Except it's not quite that simple, and it doesn't exactly agree with history. Handel wove more than a few extra-curricular threads into the tale.

To understand Handel's plot, it's best to start with who's who. The Roman principals are Caesar, then the leading Roman General; Pompeo, whom Caesar has just defeated in battle; Cornelia, Pompeo's wife; Sesto, Cornelia and Pompeo's son; and Curio, a Roman official.

The Egyptians are Cleopatra, the Queen; her brother Tolomeo, who is King; Achilla, Tolomeo's counsellor and head of the Egyptian army; and Nireno, confidant to both he King and Queen.

ACT ONE: As the opera opens, the Egyptian people welcome Caesar as a hero. He agrees to meet with Cornelia and Sesto, who petition Caesar for a peace settlement on behalf of Pompeo. During this discussion, Achilla arrives with Tolomeo's gifts to Caesar. One of them is Pompeo's severed head.

Caesar is livid. Pompeo may have been an enemy, but he was Rome's enemy to deal with, not Eqypt's. Sesto swears to avenge his father's murder. Cornelia is suddenly a widow — but she's also quite wealthy and now eligible, and gets an immediate marriage proposal from Curio.

Nireno brings the bad news of Caesar's fury to Cleopatra. She sees it as an opportunity to topple Tolemeo and take control of Egypt. To accomplish this, she'll seduce Caesar and dethrone her brother. Cleopatra disguises herself as an Egyptian maiden. She tells Caesar she's been swindled by Tolomeo. Caesar, taken by her beauty, promises to help.

In the royal palace, when Caesar and Tolomeo finally meet, they plainly can't stand each other. Still, Caesar accepts the hospitality of an overnight stay in the royal apartments. Unexpectedly, Sesto and his mother Cornelia show up in a rage, hurling insults and threats at Tolomeo. He responds by having them arrested, and there's a bittersweet duet between mother and son as they're dragged away by guards.

ACT TWO: Cleopatra asks Nireno if the details of her plan to take power are in place. She intends, as she puts it, to make Caesar her "prisoner of love," then use him to grab the throne.

Disguised, Cleopatra begins her big production number, a kind of Busby-Berkely spectacle complete with celestial music and nine elaborately-clad muses surrounding her. She sings a voluptuous aria about Caesar's sexy eyes piercing her heart. Caesar promptly falls for the sensuous Egyptian Queen.

Meanwhile, in Tolomeo's palace garden, Cornelia is fed up with imprisonment. She's been sentenced to weed and hoe the flowers. Apparently just for fun, Tolomeo himself tries to seduce her — even though she know's that he ordered her husband's beheading. Cornelia brushes Tolomeo away, telling him that he must be nuts! He's insulted, and says she'll soon "taste his venom." Cornelia doesn't doubt Tolomeo's rage, but she does question his sanity and now contemplates suicide.

When she's about to do the deed, Sesto shows up in time to stop her. It seems Nireno has sprung him from Tolomeo's prison. Still, there's more bad news. Cornelia is to be thrown into a different version of prison — Tolomeo's harem.

Meanwhile, Cleopatra keeps her promised rendezvous with Caesar. In the middle of what might have become a love duet, Curio steps in to tell both of them that there's a plot afoot to kill Caesar. In the confusion Cleopatra reveals her disguise to Caesar and advises him to run for it. In a flashy vocal number, Caesar says he'll defend himself. The act closes with one of Handel's most beautiful arias, "Se pieta." Left alone, Cleopatra realizes her grand plan is crumbling around her.

ACT THREE: Achilla, Tolomeo's general, has had enough of his unbalanced boss. He's switching his allegiance and troops to Cleopatra. But it may be too late. Tolomeo's forces have defeated Caesar and captured Cleopatra. In an aria that bounces back and forth between tears and tirades she bewails her predicament, assuming Caesar is dead.

But there's no killing this Caesar. After escaping from Tolomeo, he finds the wounded Achilla on the battle field handing a signet ring to Sesto, thus ensuring the loyalty of Achilla's troops. Caesar takes the ring, saying he'll save Cleopatra himself.

As Cleopatra bids farewell to her friends, Caesar and the troops arrive in the nick of time and he and the Queen are reunited. Meanwhile, in Tolomeo's chamber, Cornelia again refuses his advances. At the crucial moment, when she's about to stab Tolemeo, Sesto comes to the rescue again and happily does the job himself. With the madman Tolomeo dead, the opera can close with general rejoicing. Sesto and his mother Cornelia are welcomed as friends, and Caesar and Cleopatra declare their love forever.

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