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Baroqe Era - The Beginnings of Opera

In a musical context, "Baroque" is a much less precise term, often used to suggest little more than an ornate and rather theatrical style. Composers of. the time, however, were conscious of a break with the past. In 1605, Monteverdi made a firm distinction between a PRIMA PRATTICA and a SECONDA PRATTICA (first and second practice), the former referring to the intricate Renaissance style of composition, the latter to a new emphasis on the clarity of the text. At the heart of the new style was the development of the BASSO CONTINUO (thorough bass), a system of notation for the secondary instruments.


Such innovations bore fruit almost immediately, helping to stimulate the emergence of opera. 

The oldest surviving opera is Jacopo Peri's Euridice, commissioned in 1600 for the festivities celebrating the marriage of Henri IV of France to the Florentine Maria de' Medici. However, the first masterpiece in the new genre was Monteverdi's Orfeo in 1607, which was composed for the Gonzaga family at Mantua. This was produced on an entirely different scale from the earlier experiments. While Pen had made use of just a few lutes and a harpsichord in his operas, keeping them discreetly hidden behind the scenery, Monteverdi employed a full orchestra consisting of some 40 instruments.

The taste for opera spread; Rome and Venice became the new centres of musical excellence. Rome took the lead in the 1620s, largely due to patronage from high-ranking clergymen. Cardinal Barbenni had a well-appointed opera house constructed in his palace in 1623, while one of the most talented librettists of the period, Giulio Rospigliosi, became pope in 1667. 

The first public opera house opened there in 1637, and at least 15 more were built before the end of the century. 

Opera was the most exciting new art form of the age, consolidating the reputation of the Italian regions as the cultural focus of Europe. This fact belies the conception that political and artistic success go hand in hand, for the Italian peninsula then contained little more than a motley assortment of independent princedoms and satellite states. 

In England, in the mid-sixteenth century, the influence of the Puritans ushered in an era of austerity. Ironically, the same period also witnessed the first stirrings of English opera. Plays set to music qualified as "concerts" and thus escaped the ban that affected the stage. Henry Purcell, whose father had been one of the performers in The siege of Rhodes, wrote several semi-operas, among them The fairy queen and King Arthur, and also produced the first English opera of genuine merit with his Dido and Aeneas in 1689.

The career of Handel could hardly have been more different, although he was born in the same year as Bach. Where the latter was content to continue working in provincial seclusion, Handel sought and found the limelight, enjoying a roller-coaster career in London as both composer and impresario. 

The fact that Handel chose to settle in London, which had hitherto been something of a backwater in operatic terms, may well reflect the shift that had taken place in the European balance of power.

In Vienna Christoph Gluck introduced his "reform" operas during the 1760s. He declared that the function of music was to serve the text and the demands of the plot, and sought to eliminate coloratura singing (the florid elaboration of vocal lines, usually by sopranos). He boosted the roles of both the chorus and the orchestra to compensate for this omission.

First edition of July 1724 printed by Cluer and Creake

Händel - Giulio Cesare - Con Montserrat Caballé, Díaz, Payne, Pierotti; Weikert 12.06. 1982 

Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Italian for "Julius Caesar in Egypt", HWV 17), commonly known as Giulio Cesare, is a dramma per musica (opera seria) in three acts composed for the Royal Academy of Music by George Frideric Handel in 1724. The libretto was written by Nicola Francesco Haym who used an earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani, which had been set to music by Antonio Sartorio (1676). The opera was a success at its first performances, was frequently revived by Handel in his subsequent opera seasons and is now one of the most often performed Baroque operas.

The opera's plot is loosely based on historic events during the Roman Civil War of 49–45 BC.


These achievements granted him unmatched military power and threatened to eclipse the standing of Pompey, who had realigned himself with the Senate after the death of Crassus in 53 BC. With the Gallic Wars concluded, the Senate ordered Caesar to step down from his military command and return to Rome. Caesar found himself with no other options, but to cross the Rubicon with the 13th Legion, leaving his province and illegally entering Roman Italy under arms. Civil war resulted and Caesar's victory in the war put him in an unrivalled position of power and influence.
After assuming control of government, Caesar began a programme of social and governmental reforms, including the creation of the Julian calendar. He gave citizenship to many residents of far regions of the Roman Empire. He initiated land reform and support for veterans. He centralised the bureaucracy of the Republic and was eventually proclaimed "dictator in perpetuity", giving him additional authority. His populist and authoritarian reforms angered the elites, who began to conspire against him. On the Ides of March (15 March) 44 BC Caesar was assassinated by a group of rebellious senators led by Gaius Cassius Longinus, Marcus Junius Brutus and Decimus Junius Brutus. A new series of civil wars broke out and the constitutional government of the Republic was never fully restored. Caesar's adopted heir Octavian, later known as Augustus, rose to sole power after defeating his opponents in the civil war. Octavian set about solidifying his power and the era of the Roman Empire began.


Cleopatra originally ruled jointly with her father Ptolemy XII Auletes, and later with her brothers Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator and Ptolemy XIV, whom she married as per Egyptian custom, but eventually she became sole ruler. As queen, she consummated a liaison with Julius Caesar that solidified her grip on the throne. She later elevated Caesarion, her son with Caesar, to co-ruler in name. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, she aligned with Mark Antony in opposition to Caesar's legal heir, Octavian (later known as Augustus). With Antony, she bore the twins Cleopatra Selene II and Alexander Helios, and son Ptolemy Philadelphus (her unions with her brothers had produced no children). Antony committed suicide after losing the Battle of Actium to Octavian's forces, and Cleopatra followed suit. According to a popular belief, she killed herself by means of an asp bite on August 12, 30 BC. She was outlived by Caesarion, who was declared pharaoh by his supporters, but he was soon killed on Octavian's orders. Egypt then became the Roman province of Aegyptus.

Cleopatra's legacy survives in numerous works of art, both ancient and modern, and many dramatizations of incidents from her life in literature and other media. These include William Shakespeare's tragedy Antony and Cleopatra; George Frideric Handel's opera Giulio Cesare; George Bernard Shaw's play Caesar and Cleopatra; Jules Massenet's opera Cléopâtre.

Gaius Julius Caesar (13 July 100 BC – 15 March 44 BC), usually called Julius Caesar, was a Roman politician and general who played a critical role in the events that led to the demise of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. He is also known as a notable author of Latin prose.

In 60 BC, Caesar, Crassus and Pompey formed a political alliance that dominated Roman politics for several years. Their attempts to amass power as Populares were opposed by the Optimates within the Roman Senate, among them Cato the Younger with the frequent support of Cicero. Caesar's victories in the Gallic Wars, completed by 51 BC, extended Rome's territory to the English Channel and the Rhine. Caesar became the first Roman general to cross both the Channel and the Rhine, when he built a bridge across the Rhine and crossed the Channel to invade Britain.

Cleopatra VII Philopator (69 – August 12, 30 BC), known to history as Cleopatra, was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, briefly survived as pharaoh by her son Caesarion. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the recently established Roman Empire.

Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, a Greek family of Macedonian origin that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great's death during the Hellenistic period. The Ptolemies spoke Greek throughout their dynasty, and refused to speak Late Egyptian, which is the reason that Greek as well as Egyptian were used on official court documents such as the Rosetta Stone. By contrast, Cleopatra did learn to speak Egyptian and represented herself as the reincarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis.


(Giulio Cesare)


Opera in three acts by George Frederick Handel
with libretto in Italian by Nicola Francesco Haym



Julius Caesar      -  Male contralto

Curio, his aide-de-camp      -  Tenor
Cornelia, widow of Pompey      -   Contralto
Sextus, her son      -  Tenor
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt      -  Soprano
Ptolemy, her brother      -  Bass
Achillas, his adviser      -  Bass

Nirenus, Cleopatra's adviser     -  Male contralto


Time: 48 b.c.

Place: Alexandria

First performance at London, March 2, 1724




Scene 1  
The overture, which consists of a formal introduction and allegro, leads directly into the welcoming chorus of Egyptians, who greet the conqueror, Julius Caesar, as he crosses a bridge. Caesar sings a Signified aria expressing satisfaction with his latest exploit, and his aide-de-camp, Curio, summarizes the situation with a bromidic quotation from his master's collected literary works:"Caesar came, he saw, and he conquered.”

It is Pompey, Caesar's erstwhile partner-in-government, who has suffered defeat and capture, and when Pompey's wife and son, Cornelia and Sextus, appear on the scene, Caesar speaks magnanimously to them, proposing a reconciliation. The joyful occasion is utterly ruined, however, when Achillas brings in a gift. Achillas is the military leader and personal adviser to Ptolemy, Cleopatra's somewhat degenerate younger brother, and the gift he has sent in a basket is the bead of Pompey. Everyone is deeply shocked by this action excepting Achillas, who, in an aside, indicates that his first sight of Cornelia has utterly fascinated him. Caesar turns on Achillas and denounces him in a vigorous aria; Cornelians aria expresses her deep sorrow; while that of Sextus warns us that he means to have revenge. A more modern opera would have taken the occasion to develop these passions simultaneously in a finale; but this was a technique not yet developed, and the convention of arias following upon each other, between recitatives, is consistently followed.


Scene 2  In her own room, attended by her handmaidens, Cleopatra receives the horrid news of Pompey's murder by her brother, Ptolemy. As she is his rival for the throne of Egypt, she decides to counter this possibly welcome act by hying her feminine wiles on Caesar. She prepares to meet him, ordering her friend Nirenus to accompany her; but just then Ptolemy enters to resume the argument—apparently an old one—as to which of the two shall occupy the throne. She dismisses him with the epithet effiminato amante (effeminate lover) and departs herself after singing an aria in which she trusts sex to lead her to the throne.

Achillas finds Ptolemy still in the room, tells him of Caesar's anger, and suggests that he himselt be instructed to murder the man. All he asks for as a reward is Cornelia. Ptolemy considers this a splendid arrangement and sings an aria already gloating over the death of Caesar.

Scene 3 At the tomb of Pompey, Caesar (in a long recitative) solemnly pays his last respects to his late rivaL Cleopatra, disguised as one of her own handmaidens named Lydia, approaches Caesar and asks for help against the tyrant Ptolemy, who, she says, has robbed her. Much impressed by the girl’s beauty—as Curio is, too—he raises the kneeling suppliant and promises to see that her fortune is restored. He sings an aria likening her to a meadow flower and departs on his mission.

Cleopatra and Nirenus are congratulating themselves on how well the strategy seems to be working, when Cornelia and Sextus come to the same spot. The widow takes a dagger from among the trophies of war that decorate the tomb, swear- ing vengeance on the murderer. But Sextus seizes the dagger, declaring that the vengeance should be his.

Cleopatra then closes the scene with a brilliant aria apostrophizing the star or her expected good fortune.

Scene 4 At a banquet in Ptolemy’s palace, he and Caesar exchange polite greetings barbed with threats. In an aria, sung as an aside, Caesar lets the audience know that he is on his guard.

Cornelia and Sextus then meet Ptolemy and Achillas, and when Sextus challenges Ptolemy to single combat, both the Romans are arrested, Sextus to be sent to prison, Cornelia to Ptolemy's seraglio. There, he tells Achillas, she will be reserved especially for mm.

The act ends with a sorrowful duet sung by mother and son. 

Caesar giving Cleopatra the throne of Egypt, Pietro da Cortona, 1637


Scene 1  Music comes from the "Pаlaсе of the Goddess of Virtue," which stands in a grove of cedars with Mount Parnassus in the background. Caesar, who is standing in the grove, is enchanted. He is even more enchanted when the palace opens up disclosing Virtue served by the nine muses, and Cleopatra sings a long love song, Nirenus, who has been standing by, sees that this aphrodisiacal show is having its effect on Caesar and offers to lead him to where Lydia lies.

Scene 2  In the garden of his harem Ptolemy, despite his promise to Achillas, tries to make improper advances to Cornelia. She repulses him and runs away, whereupon be sings an aria threatening to use force.

Sextus then occupies the stage long enough to sing a very striking aria in which a snakelike melody suggests the reptile that he likens to his revenge.

Scene 3  Caesar is proposing marriage to Cleopatra, still thinking her to be "Lydia," when Curio rushes in to warn him that a mob outside is crying: “Death to Caesar!” Cleopatra, declarmg that she will stay by him to the death, finally reveals her true identity, and goes forth to face down the mob.

Caesar: Curio, these strange adventures paralyze my senses.

Curio: I am stupefied.

After this noble repartee Cleopatra returns, having failed, and urges Caesar to run for his life. Caesar, after an aria declaring his determination to take vengeance, takes her advice. Left alone, she gives voice to one of the finest arias of any Handelian opera, a prayer to the gods for pity accompanied by a particularly eloquent figure in the violins.

Cleopatra and Caesar (1866). Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme


Scene 1  This is devoted primarily to another fine aria for Cleopatra. Caesar has been defeated; for all she knows, he is dead; and she weeps over her probable fate.

Scene 2 But Caesar has not been killed. He had jumped into the sea and dragged himself onto the beach. In an aria he asks the gods for pity on him. Sextus has not been hurt either; he comes to the beach, weapon in hand, still looking for Ptolemy. Achillas, however, has been badly wounded. He drags himself in wearily, followed by Nirenus (unwounded). Considerably cheered by this sight, Caesar takes Nirenus with him on a search for Cleopatra and Cornelia.

Scene 3 Cleopatra is still bewailing the fortunes of war and the way they have turned against her, when Caesar comes in, victorious, followed by soldiers.

Scene 4 At the port of Alexandria there is played a "victory symphony"; Caesar crowns Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt; they sing a love duet; and the chorus sings a paean to happiness. 


Frederick Arthur Bridgman - Cleopatra on the Terraces

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