30 Apr 2006

HANDEL: Giulio Cesare in Egitto

Giulio Cesare in Egitto (HWV 17), Drama in three acts.

Music composed by Georg Friedrich Handel (1685–1759). Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym after an earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani.

First Performance: 20 February 1724, King's Theatre, London.

Principal Characters:

Giulio Cesare (Julius Cæsar), first Emperor of the Romans Male Alto
Curio (Curius), Tribune of Rome Bass
Cornelia, Wife to Pompey Contralto
Sesto Pompeo (Sestus), Son to Pompey and Cornelia Soprano
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt Soprano
Tolomeo (Ptolomey), King of Egypt and Brother to Cleopatra Male Alto
Achilla, General and Counsellor to Ptolomey Bass
Nireno (Nirenus), Friend to Ptolomey and Cleopatra Male Alto

Time and Place: Circa 48 B.C.E. in Egypt.

The Argument (Argomento):

JULIUS CÆSAR Dictator, having subdued the Gauls, and not being able thro’ the Interest of Curius, a Tribune, to obtain the Consulship, carried so far his Resentment to the Subversion of the Latine Liberty, that he shew’d himself more like an Enemy than a Citizen of Rome. The Senate being apprehensive of his growing Power, in order to check it, sent the Great Pompey against him with a numerous Army, which was defeated by Cæsar in the Pharsalian Fields. Pompey after this Rout, remembering the good Services he had done to the House of Ptolomey, thought it best to shelter himself there with Nornelia his Wife, and his Son Sestus; in the very time that Cleopatra and Ptolomey (the young ambitious and licentious King) forgetting their Affinity of Blood, were like inveterate Foes, arm’d against each other in Contention for the Crown. Cicero was made Prisoner, the good Cato kill’d himself in Utica, and Scipio with the poor Remains of the Roman Legions wandered Fugitive in Arabia. Cæsar being sensible, that nothing but the entire Destruction of Pompey could establish him Emperor of Rome, pursued him even into Egypt. Ptolomey naturally cruel and void of Honour, in hopes to ingratiate himself with Cæsar, and procure his Assistance against Cleopatra, presented him with the Head of Pompey, whom he had murdered at the Instigation of Achilla. Cæsar wept at the horrid Sight, taxing Ptolomey of Treachery and Barbarity; who not long after, a the Insinuation of the same wicked Counsellor, infringing upon the Sacred Laws of Hospitality, attempted privately to take away his Life; which Cæsar narrowly escap’d by throwing himself from the Palace into the Water, where he saved himself by swimming; upon this, arm’d with Fury and Resentment, he turn’d his Forces against the bloody Tyrant, who was soon after kill’d in the Heat of Battle. Cæsar falling in Love with Cleopatra, plac’d her upon the Throne of Egypt, he being at that time Master of the World, and first Emperor of Rome.

These Facts are taken from the Comment. of Cæsar, lib. 3. & 4. Dion. Lib. xiij. Plut. in the Life of Pompey and Cæsar; which Authors affirm, that Ptolomey was vanquish’d by Cæsar, and slain in Battle; but how, was uncertain.

Whereupon it was thought necessary in the present Drama to make Sestus the Instrument of Ptolomey’s Death in Revenge for his Father’s Murder, varying from History only in Circumstances of Action.

GIULIO CESARE In Egitto. DRAMA Da Rappresentarsi Nel REGGIO TEATRO di HAY-MARKET, per La Reale Accademia di Musica, 3-4 (London: Tomaso Wood nella Piccola Bretagna, 1724).


Act One

The victorious general Julius Cæsar is welcomed with jubilation. He accords Cornelia, Pompey's wife, and their son Sestus, his respect, and is prepared to make peace with his opponent.

In order to win Cæsar's favour, the Egyptian king Ptolemy sends his general Achilla to present Cæsar with the head of Pompey who has been murdered. Cæsar is outraged by this deed.

Cornelia laments the death of her husband; Sestus swears to avenge his father's murder.

Cleopatra, Ptolemy's sister, as first-born child considers herself to be the legitimate ruler of Egypt. She is intent on winning Cæsar's affections in order to gain the throne.

Achilla tells Ptolemy of Cæsar's anger over Pompey's murder. He is prepared to murder Cæsar as well on condition that he be allowed to wed Cornelia. Ptolemy agrees to the bargain.

Prompted by Pompey's death, Cæsar reflects on the pointlessness of life and fame. At this moment Cleopatra appears. She pretends to be Lidia, one of Cleopatra's servants, and asks Cæsar for support against Ptolemy. Cæsar is fascinated by her and promises help.

Cornelia is mourning the loss of her husband. Sestus wrests from her the sword with which she intends to kill Ptolemy. He considers this act of vengeance to be his right alone. Cleopatra has overheard their plans and promises to help them gain entry into the palace.

Cæsar meets Ptolemy. He reproaches the Egyptian for the murder of Pompey. Although Ptolemy appears to be hospitable, Cæsar senses danger and withdraws. Accompanied by his mother, Sestus has entered the palace and challenges Ptolemy to a duel, which the latter refuses to accept. Instead he condemns Cornelia to serve in his harem. Achilla promises her and her son freedom if she agrees to become his wife. Both indignantly reject this offer. Lamenting their fate, they part.

Act Two

Cleopatra has instructed her confidant Nirenus to bring Cæsar to her chambers, where she receives him, still in the guise of Lidia.

Cæsar appears and is overwhelmed by her beauty.

Achilla asks Cornelia once again for her hand, but is rejected.

Ptolemy is also enchanted by Cornelia's beauty and desires to marry her. When she indignantly repudiates her husband's murderer, he threatens to use force. Cornelia is on the point of ending her own life, but Sestus holds her back. Nirenus promises Sestus that he will bring him to Ptolemy. Sestus again swears to avenge his father's murder.

Cleopatra is expecting Cæsar; she asks the goddess of love to help her seduce him. Cæsar promses Cleopatra marriage.

At this moment Curio enters to warn Cæsar of murderers that Ptolemy has dispatched. Cleopatra reveals her true identity to Cæsar and offers him protection. Cæsar, however, is undaunted and departs to do battle, leaving Cleopatra distraught and fearing for the life of her beloved.

Act Three

In the battle between Cleapatra's troops and those of Ptolemy, the latter are victorious. He has his sister taken prisoner. Cleopatra laments her fate and curses her brother.

Cæsar has managed to escape drowning at sea and hopes that he can once again turn fate to his own advantage.

Sestus has been unable to find Ptolemy on the battlefield. He and Nirenus discover Achilla mortally wounded. He admits to having instigated Pompey's murder in order to win Cornelia, to have planned the plot against Cæsar, and to have betrayed Ptolemy, by whom he believes to have been deceived. For this he must now pay the price of death. As he dies, he gives Sestus a seal. Whoever possesses the seal can command one hundred armed men who are concealed nearby. Cæsar, who has been listening to the conversation, demands that he be given the seal and departs with Sestus in order to liberate Cleopatra and Cornelia.

The captive Cleopatra is expecting to be killed and bids farewell to her companions. Cæsar frees her.

Ptolemy tries once again to force his attentions on Cornelia. As she draws a sword against him, Sestus steps between them. He throws himself on Ptolemy and kills him. His father has finally been avenged.

Cæsar embraces Sestus as a friend and declares Cleopatra Queen of Egypt.

[Synopsis: Bayerische Staatsoper (translation: Christopher Balme)]

Click here for complete libretto.