Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt)
  • George Frideric Handel. Opera in three acts. 1724.
  • Libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, after an earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani.
  • First performance at the King’s Theatre, London, on 20th February 1724.
Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar) male alto
Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt soprano
Tolomeo (Ptolemy), her brother, King of Egypt male alto
Achilla (Achillas), a general, his counsellor bass
Nireno (Nirenus), confidant of Cleopatra & Ptolemy male alto
Curio, a Roman tribune bass
Cornelia, widow of Pompey contralto
Sesto (Sextus), son of Pompey soprano

Caesar, in pursuit of Pompey, lands in Egypt, where Pompey’s wife, Cornelia, and her son Sextus beg for reconciliation. Ptolemy greets him with the present of Pompey’s head, an unwelcome gift. Cornelia is prevented from suicide by her would-be lover Curio, and Sextus threatens vengeance. Cleopatra, meanwhile, plots to use Caesar in order to displace her brother Ptolemy. Achillas offers to kill Caesar and make Ptolemy king, if he may have Cornelia as a reward. Cleopatra disguises herself as one injured by Ptolemy and seeks Caesar’s interest, while Cornelia and her son are taken prisoner by Ptolemy. Caesar and Cleopatra eventually come together, her identity now revealed, while Ptolemy presses his attentions on Cornelia. Caesar escapes, to avoid a planned attempt on his life. Cleopatra is taken prisoner by Ptolemy but Caesar, returning, promises to rescue both her and Cornelia, with the help of Sextus, who, in an assault on Ptolemy’s palace, kills the despot. Caesar now allows Cleopatra the crown of Egypt, as queen and tributary of the Roman Empire.

Handel’s very successful opera presents the usual difficulties of works of this period for modern performance, cast as it was for three castrato singers. Later revisions transformed Nirenus into Nirena, a handmaid for Cleopatra, and cast Sextus as a tenor. The title role has provided a moving part for mezzo-soprano in a work that has the expected disregard for historical accuracy. The best-known arias from the opera are V’adoro, pupille (I adore you), as Cleopatra, in the guise of a goddess, prepares to entertain Caesar, and the moving Piangerò, la sorte mia (I shall weep my lot), as she laments her defeat by Ptolemy. Caesar has his own moment of desolation when he returns to the shores of Egypt, after his escape from Ptolemy, with Aure, deh, per pietà (In mercy, ah, breezes). All this is in a richly orchestrated score.