Giulio Cesare in Egitto was first performed at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, London on 20 February 1724. The opera was an immediate success. A contemporary wrote in a letter on 10 March 1724:
…the opera is in full swing also, since Hendell’s new one, called Jules César – in which Cenesino and Cozzuna shine beyond all criticism – has been put on. The house was just as full at the seventh performance as at the first.
Handel revived the opera (with various changes) three times during his lifetime: in 1725, 1730, and 1732.
The roles of Cesare and Cleopatra were originally sung by the castrato Senesino and the famous soprano Francesca Cuzzoni respectively. Handel composed eight arias and two recitatives accompagnati for each singer, thus making full use of their vocal capabilities. Curio and Nireno were not allotted any arias in the original version, only singing in recitatives, although they take part in the first and final choruses. However, Handel composed an aria for Nireno for a later revival in 1730.
Although a caricature, the contemporary engraving of Senesino on the left, Francesca Cuzzoni and castrato Gaetano Berenstadt on the right, provides valuable information about the visual aspect of the original performances of Handel operas. The illustration is probably of a scene from Handel’s Flavio, presented by the Royal Academy of Music in 1723, although it has sometimes been identified as a scene from Giulio Cesare. The elongated bodies of the castrati tower over Cuzzoni, who was described by Horace Walpole as “short and squat”. The set is architectural and generic, not a specific locale, and the costumes for the men are also generic, with some inspiration from ancient Roman military attire, breastplates, armoured skirts and leg armour, combined with plumes on the headdresses. Such costumes were worn by the leading men in Handel operas whether the setting was ancient Rome or Gothic Europe. Cuzzoni, in contrast, wears a contemporary gown such as might have been suitable for presentation at court, with a dwarf to serve as her train-bearer.
Giulio Cesare, Re d’Egitto
Nederlandse Reisopera (The Netherlands 2022)
Nicholas Tamagna, as Tolomeo
Conductor/Director: George Petrou
Opera London (Ontario 2011)
Nicholas Tamagna, as Tolomeo (cover)
Bel Cantanti, Washington DC (USA 2011)