Handel's 'Julius Caesar,' Politics And Passion

From the Metropolitan Theatre of Lausanne

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The Hit Single

Cleopatra (soprano Elena de la Merced) begins to see that her intricate plan to steal power and gain love is crumbling before her in this heartbreaking lament.

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the b-side

Spending the night in the palace of his enemy, Caesar (countertenor Andreas Scholl) describes how a good hunter "silently and stealthily" stalks his prey.

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Who's Who?

Andreas Scholl ........ Julius Caesar

Elena de la Merced ....... Cleopatra

Christophe Dumaux ........ Tolomeo

Stephanie d'Oustrac ....... Cornelia

Max Emanuel Cencic ......... Sesto

Riccardo Novaro ............... Achilla

Florin Cezar-Ouata ........... Nireno

Yannis Francois ................. Curio

Chamber Orchestra of Lausanne

Ottavio Dantone, conductor

Elena de la Merced and Andreas Scholl in Handel's opera, "Julius Caesar."

Love and politics mix when Queen Cleopatra (Elena de la Merced) seduces the Roman leader Julius Caesar (Andreas Scholl), in a production of Handel's opera in Lausanne. Marc Vanappelghem/Opera de Lausanne hide caption

itoggle caption Marc Vanappelghem/Opera de Lausanne

Opera has always worked its magic by combining a variety of elements: music, stagecraft, narrative, and theater. But really, opera's true stars have always been the singers.

Today's operatic superstars — such as Renée Fleming or Placido Domingo — tend to be either sopranos or tenors. Even a hundred years ago, the reigning mega-stars were Enrico Caruso, the great tenor from Naples, and Nellie Melba, the famed Australian soprano whose name was attached to those hard little crackers called Melba toast.

But tenors and sopranos didn't always exert such sovereign power. In fact, back in George Frideric Handel's day, opera's greatest roles were generally written for a very different type of singer — the castrato, a young male who had a particular incision before reaching puberty, thus keeping the voice high and strong as it developed.

Handel cast two of the greatest superstar castratos for the 1724 premiere of his extravagant opera Julius Caesar. The famed Senesino sang the title role, while Gaetano Berenstadt played his rival, Tolomeo.

Long gone are the days when boys went under the knife in exchange for powerful high voices. Many of those flamboyant roles were picked up by women, but increasingly, the great castrato parts are being sung by yet another type of high male voice — the countertenor.

In this edition of World of Opera, with host Lisa Simeone, there are — count them — four countertenors, including one of the best in the business, Andreas Scholl. He takes on the lead role in Julius Caesar, in a production from the Metropolitan Theatre of Lausanne, in Switzerland.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

The Story of 'Julius Caesar'

Christophe Dumaus and Elena de la Merced in Handel's 'Julius Caesar' i

Sibling Rivalry: King Tolomeo (Christophe Dumaus) argues with his sister, Queen Cleopatra (Elena de la Merced), in Handel's Julius Caesar at the Metropole Theatre in Lausanne, Switzerland. Marc Vanappelghem / Opera de Lausanne hide caption

itoggle caption Marc Vanappelghem / Opera de Lausanne
Christophe Dumaus and Elena de la Merced in Handel's 'Julius Caesar'

Sibling Rivalry: King Tolomeo (Christophe Dumaus) argues with his sister, Queen Cleopatra (Elena de la Merced), in Handel's Julius Caesar at the Metropole Theatre in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Marc Vanappelghem / Opera de Lausanne
Andreas Scholl as Julius Caesar

The Roman military leader Julius Caesar (Andreas Scholl) tries to keep his cool amid a storm of romance, politics, and war in Handel's Julius Caesar, from the Metropole in Lausanne, Switzerland. Marc Vanappelghem / Opera de Lausanne hide caption

itoggle caption Marc Vanappelghem / Opera de Lausanne

ACT ONE: Handel's opera Julius Caesar recounts the great love story between Caesar and Cleopatra — except it's not quite that simple. Handel wove distinctly operatic threads into the tale. The piece was first performed at the King's Theater in London, in February 1724.

To understand Handel's plot, knowing who's who is a good place to start. First, the Romans: Caesar, of course, is the Roman General; then there's Cornelia, the wife of Pompeo, whom Caesar has just defeated in battle; and there's also Sesto, who is Cornelia and Pompeo's son; and finally, Curio, a Roman official.

The opera is set in Egypt's Nile Valley, where Caesar has tracked the defeated Pompeo. So now, the Egyptians: First, Cleopatra, the Queen; then Tolomeo, her brother, the King; there's also Achilla, head of the Egyptian army and counselor to Tolomeo; and Nireno, confidante of both King and Queen.

The Egyptian people welcome Caesar as the opera opens. He agrees to meet with Cornelia and Sesto, who are petitioning him for a peace settlement on behalf of Pompeo. In the middle of the discussion, Achilla arrives with gifts from Tolomeo — one of them is the severed head of Pompeo. Caesar is livid, promising to punish Tolomeo, while Sesto swears revenge for his father's murder. Cornelia, now suddenly a widow, is naturally devastated — even though she receives an immediate marriage proposal from Curio.

Meanwhile, Nireno brings the bad news to Cleopatra, but she views this as an opportunity to become the sole leader of Egypt. Her plan is to seduce Caesar and dethrone her brother, the king. Cleopatra disguises herself as an Egyptian maiden and tells Caesar she's been swindled by Tolomeo. Taken by her beauty, Caesar promises to help.

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

As ACT TWO opens, Cleopatra's plan of seduction is in full swing. She asks her confidante Nireno if every detail is in place. She intends, as she puts it, to make Caesar her "prisoner of love."

Disguised, Cleopatra begins her big production number, a kind of Busby Berkeley spectacle, complete with celestial music, a Mount Parnassus set, and nine Muses surrounding her. She sings a voluptuous aria about Caesar's sexy eyes, and the way they pierce her heart. Caesar responds with an aria of his own, as he has clearly fallen for the beguiling woman.

Meanwhile, in Tolomeo's palace garden, Cornelia laments her imprisonment. She's been sentenced to weed and hoe the flowers. Apparently just for fun, Tolomeo himself tries to seduce her, a gutsy move, given that he's the one who ordered the murder of her husband in Act One. Calling him insane, Cornelia brushes Tolomeo away. In return for her rejection, Tolomeo says she will taste his venom.

Cornelia contemplates suicide, but Sesto arrives in time to stop her. Nireno has released him from Tolomeo's prison, but there's bad news. Cornelia is to be thrown into a different kind of prison — Tolomeo's harem. As a counter-plan, Nireno promises to plant Sesto in the harem, disguised, so he can kill Tolomeo before the King can get his hands on Cornelia.

The scene switches to Cleopatra, who has kept her promised rendezvous with Caesar. In the middle of what could have been 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 real identity and advises Caesar to run for it. In a flashy aria, Caesar says he'll defend himself. Act Two closes with one of Handel's most beautiful arias, "Se pietà," a lament from Cleopatra as she realizes that her grand plan is crumbling around her.

In ACT THREE, Handel turns the screws a little tighter — starting with Achilla. He's the general of King Tolomeo's army, and he's had enough. Achilla is moving his allegiance and troops over to Tolomeo's sister, Queen Cleopatra. But it's no use, as Tolomeo's forces have already captured her. In an aria alternating between tears and tirades, Cleopatra laments her predicament, believing that Caesar has died.

But Caesar has escaped, and on the battlefield he finds a wounded Achilla handing a signet ring to Sesto, 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 arrives with his men, and the two are reunited. Meanwhile, in Tolomeo's chamber, Cornelia again refuses his advances, and at a crucial moment when she's about to stab him, Sesto steps in to do the job himself. The opera closes with general rejoicing. Sesto and his mother Cornelia are welcomed as friends, and Caesar and Cleopatra declare their love forever.



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