Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rome and Egypt collide in Roanoke: Handel's Julius Caesar in Egypt, Mar 21 & 23

48 B.C.E. Julius Caesar, bold statesman, brilliant general, political genius, dictator - one of the most remarkable men in history - arrives in Egypt, victorious after Civil War in Italy. He meets Cleopatra, legendary Egyptian Queen, symbol of unsurpassed beauty who, as one of the most famous women ever to have lived, has lodged herself into the collective imagination of the world. Egypt itself is embroiled in Civil War. Intrigue. Manipulations. Liaisons. Handel's operatic masterpiece, Giulio Cesare in Egitto.
- Rod Gomez, director.

Rod's note above and my program notes below are included in our playbill. I hope they whet your appetite for Handel.

George Frideric Handel was as cosmopolitan as he was prodigious. A German composer who cut his teeth in Italy before settling in England to become the greatest opera composer of his time, his name has since been synonymous with the sacred Oratorio, of which Messiah is the most famous. The “Hallelujah Chorus,” however, may not have been written, had Italian opera not had its Handelian heyday in 1720’s London. As director of the Royal Academy, a project initiated by his aristocratic patrons, Handel not only initiated one of the richest periods of musical drama; he also helped birth the concept of the season subscription. As one of his founding patrons put it, “The intention of this musical Society, was to secure themselves a constant supply of Operas to be composed by HANDEL, and performed under his direction.” With “his Majesty pleased to let his name appear at the head of it,” the Society had its “Royal” designation and significant political, if not always financial, capital. Handel invested enough talent and energy “in the enterprise over the next eight years, the Academy, though financially disastrous, was an artistic triumph.” Indeed, as many an Impresario has found in the subsequent three centuries, artistic genius alone does not insure sustainability. (But that is another essay…)

(A 1720 portrait of Senesino)

As we have attempted in our production of Cesare, Handel set about hiring the best talent available for his cast and his orchestra. Among those were the famed castrato, known as Senesino, and the celebrated sopranos Cuzzoni and Faustina. “Opera fever gripped the town,” Handel scholar and conductor Christopher Hogwood writes. Quoting a letter from John Gay to Jonathan Swift, “Senesino is daily voted to be the greatest man who ever lived.” Fitting, then, he should create the role of Handel’s greatest hero, Julius Ceasar, for the 1724 season of the Royal Academy. What makes Giulio Cesare a cut above even the best of Handel’s operas is the quality of the score. Not until Mozart would an opera have such depth of character in its vocal writing, nor magnificent color and variety in its orchestration. For Cleopatra’s great “seduction scene” of Caesar [at the top of Act II in the original; in our abridged production, near the end of Act I], Handel calls for a double orchestra and writes a nine-voice accompaniment, one instrument each representing the nine Muses. Critics ascribe an “exotic magnificence” and “spacious sensuality” to this scene in particular, and the entire opera.

If this were an opera with a compelling central couple and mere two-dimensional supporting roles, it might fare no better than a Hollywood flop. While I count myself among the fans of Joseph Mankiewicz’s spectacular 1962 film, Cleopatra, Achillas is a cipher in that 4-hour epic. One would be hard-pressed to leave this live drama without an opinion about that complex general whose character evolves as much as any in the opera. His cunning boss, Cleopatra’s younger brother, Ptolemy (Tolomeo) is anything but a whining teenager in Handel’s vision. After Caesar and Cleopatra, the grieving widow, Cornelia and her vengeance-hungry son, Sesto command our attention and enlist our support. Their duet of lament is one of the most heart-rending, pathos-filled strains in Western music, more remarkable for its formal simplicity and restraint.

At a recent reading, a renowned poet was asked the familiar question, “why doesn’t modern poetry rhyme?” Are you deaf? There’s music everywhere, you just have to listen, was his frank reply. The same applies to the notion that 18th century opera lacks the passion of its 19th century successors. The pathos, passion and humanity are everywhere in Handel’s penetrating musical drama on the nature of relationships - political, familial, and romantic. And it features one of history’s most glamorous couples, singing like their lives depend on it.

In his elegy for Abraham Lincoln, "When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," Whitman writes of the "solitary" thrush, "warbling a song."

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,
Death's outlet song of life (for well dear brother I know)
If thou was not gifted to sing, thou woulds't surely die.

We have a stunning cast of artists who embody this metaphor of the life-and-death relationship the artist commits to with her art. See the drama and hear the music come to life Mar 21 & 23 at the Jefferson Center.

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