Thursday, December 4, 2008

Handel’s Giulio Cesare

I must applaud Chris for sitting through the entire opera Giulio Cesare, for I was not so fortunate. With finals coming down to crunch time, my excellent finds in literature on the opera, and my attempts at wrapping my brain around Baroque audiences clamoring for castrated men to perform (which I finally answered), made it a challenge. But just as Chris discusses in depth, the performance given by Jennifer Larmore, who plays Julius Caesar, is stellar.
Chris’s entry shows his research in the Giulio Cesare performance recorded on the album directed by René Jacobs. There was little mentioning about the piece and composer itself, and so I decided to find out more.
George Frideric Handel, born in Halle Germany, in 1685, began his solid music education after the Duke of Saxe Weissenfels persuaded Handel’s father to allow his to take young Handel to Hamburg at the age of 18. His later travels from Florence to London have given his music a melding of the various styles of the time from Germany, Italy, and England. Handel traveled to London in 1711, where his first Italian opera, Rinaldo, was performed the same year at the Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket. Interest in Italian opera in England was rising, and so Handel became a regular employee of the Queen’s Theatre. It was here that the first performance of Giulio Cesare was seen in 1724.
The roles of Julius Caesar, Nirenus, and Sextus, were all originally performed by castrati. The voice of castrati became popular for having both brilliance and power, and an unearthly timbre. The rolling, wide-ranged arias of Julius Caesar display Handel’s use of the castrato, which often brought fame and glory to the singer at the time, rather than the composer. Handel shows his talent in both displaying the talents of the singers, as wells as his attention to characterization. This is best seen in the wide range of emotion and color to the character, Cleopatra. Cleopatra’s arias show her as being a scandalous flirt in seducing Julius Caesar, but also later fearing for his safety in ‘Se pieta.’
One of my favorite parts of the opera was Handel’s use of both recitative secco and recitative accompagnato. The recitative secco is used for more conversational parts (“Cesare, alla tua destra”), mainly accompanied on harpsichord. The recitative accompagnato is then used for the arias (“Presti omai”), in which Handel uses full orchestra. His use of the orchestra supports the emotion and text of the scenes beautifully.
Giulio Cesare is one of the most popular operas of the Baroque, and Handel’s best known Italian opera. Even to this day, attempts at recreating its brilliance resonate throughout the Western world. But society’s attempts at cutting corners leave most performance of it in want. Performances are often abridged (Chrysander in 1875), or the ranges are transposed to match the ranges of the men singers available to us today (Germany, 1922). At times like these, we can thank the music gods for recordings like that of René Jacobs’ Giulio Cesare.


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