FWO Archives: 'Julius Caesar' Program Notes (2011 Festival)
Updated: Jul 9
Julius Caesar Program Notes
Nicola Haym was an Italian musician resident in London, who combined several scripts from Venice and Milan to produce the libretto for Julius Caesar. Arias had become longer in recent years, and much of the plot and text had to be cut severely to produce an opera that would tell a good story, but not be so lengthy as to exhaust the singers and bore the audience. It has often been said in this regard that one should never let history get in the way of a good story for an opera. The art of the poet is well illustrated by looking at historical facts from this period of Caesar's life, and showing how altering them to make a good story is justified, as the need to entertain defeats our obligation to tell the whole truth.
Watch an interview with Ava Pine discussing Julius Caesar and the aria “V’adoro pupille.”
Caesar returned from Gaul and crossed the river Rubicon, the northern border of the ancient Roman Republic, in 49 BCE. As a consul under arms, he was obligated by Roman law to leave his legions behind him, but he proceeded with them toward the city, a treasonous act, only done once before in the seven centuries of the Roman Republic. Caesar was convinced that the Republic, torn between the impoverished masses and the greedy aristocracy in the Senate, had become completely unworkable. He believed he was obligated to seize total control of the state, and by suppressing the Senate, to dismantle the Roman Republic. The majority of the Senate fled Rome, following Pompey the Great (Caesar's one-time ally, as well as son-in-law, and now his strongest political rival) into Northern Greece. The battle of Pharsalus was decisively won by Caesar and his loyal troops. Pompey fled south to Egypt, to seek help from the boy king, Ptolemy XIII. In more amicable times, Pompey and Caesar had helped secure the Egyptian throne for the boy's father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, and much of the substantial bribe for their assistance had still not been paid by the royal family. So, Pompey expected a friendly welcome in Egypt.
Listen to KERA's Jerome Weeks Interview with countertenor Randall Scotting HERE.
But things were seldom that simple in Egypt, where centuries of dynastic inbreeding and incest in the royal family had resulted in frequent civil wars over the royal succession. Several battles over the throne had recently been averted by Roman mediation. The Romans were not concerned so much about controlling who sat on the Egyptian throne, as they were about trying to guarantee the yearly grain shipment from Egypt to Italy, which would be disrupted by a civil war during the harvest. Egypt was ruled by the descendants of Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great's Macedonian generals. Most of the Hellenistic world, the remnants of Alexander's empire, was controlled by Rome by this time, although Egypt itself was not incorporated into the Roman Empire until Augustus invaded in 30 BCE. The acknowledged capitol of the Hellenistic world was Alexandria, where the Ptolemies reigned, and the jewel of that city was the Great Library, the intellectual center of the western world and heir to the schools of Athens.
Ptolemy XII had died in 51 BCE, leaving his throne to his twenty-year old daughter Cleopatra VII, and to her ten-year old brother Ptolemy XIII, the boy king. Cleopatra was in control at first, but the military and the palace eunuchs who favored her brother forced her into exile. She returned with an army to enforce her claim on the throne. This army included 3,000 Judean troops commanded by Antipater, father of Herod the Great. The troops of the Egyptian military under general Achillas, loyal to the boy king, were camped opposite Cleopatra's forces, ready to engage, as Pompey and Caesar approached Egypt.
When Pompey stepped ashore near Alexandria, he was greeted by two Roman officers who accompanied the palace welcoming party, and they promptly stabbed him to death, in the sight of his wife Cornelia. The palace spies had reported that Caesar, who had unquestioned control of power in Rome, would arrive in a few days, and they planned to pacify him by killing his defeated enemy. Caesar was greatly offended when they presented him Pompey's head.
Read Bill Madison's Interview with Ava Pine on Handel's Cleopatra HERE.
Revenge is a powerful plot element, but in Baroque opera, wives must utilize an agent to avenge a death. Our librettist at this point used Pompey's son, Sextus Pompeius (Sesto), a known historical figure, to help Cornelia pursue the killers. Our valiant hero Sesto, however, was busy organizing Pompey's opposition forces in Syria, Asia Minor, and Spain, and never set foot in Egypt, so the revenge plot, as effective as it may be in opera, is here a pure historical fiction. The widow Cornelia at this time also becomes the object of amorous attentions from Achillas, the Egyptian general, and from the boy king himself, Tolomeo, who appears to be increasingly rash and randy as the opera proceeds. He becomes the opera's bad guy, threatening Cornelia and imprisoning her in his harem. These are great plot devices, but hardly the actions of a twelve-year old boy. Instead, the librettist makes him a young adult, and tends to gloss over the fact that Tolomeo is a minor who is manipulated like a puppet by the palace eunuchs. Once again, plot wins and history loses.
Next, we must face the historical fact that Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII were actually married, in the accepted Egyptian tradition for co-rulers. So their onstage spat in Act I is not just sibling rivalry (Ptolemy was her half-brother), but truly a husband and wife confrontation. This marital aspect of Ptolemaic history hardly enhances the battle for the throne, as portrayed in the Baroque context, so the librettist happily omits that little detail.
Cleopatra now becomes central to the opera, as she begins to pursue Caesar. Her continued presence at this time, near Caesar's quarters in the royal palace, is hard to reconcile with her actual lodgings in the army camp across the river. For her first meeting with Caesar, she was rowed across the river, and smuggled into his quarters in a laundry sack (some sources have her rolled up in a rug). Caesar had by this time declared his intention to mediate the succession dispute, and Cleopatra was visiting to lobby for her cause. Love ensues, of course. Caesar eventually moved her into his quarters, but this may have been after the decisive battle that settled control of the city. Cleopatra's musical apparition to Caesar and the ruse of assuming the name Lydia are lovely features of the plot, but they are pure fiction. Again the librettist triumphs, but in the name of history, who would be so cruel as to sacrifice "V'adoro, pupille" on the altar of pure truth?
The episode where Caesar jumps into the harbor and is reported drowned is actually factual. Caesar was guarded in the castle by his troops, but he was surrounde<? by a hostile populace and the Egyptian army. To prevent sedition in the palace, he executed several of the eunuchs who were stirring up the populace on behalf of Tolomeo. Caesar had been attacked directly in the palace, as well as in the harbor, by Egyptian troops. Fires which were set to cover Caesar's escape in the harbor burned down parts of the Great Library, although how much of the library's precious collection was lost is not clear.
Read the Review from The Dallas Morning News on Fort Worth Opera's Second Baroque Opera HERE.
Caesar then re-appears to lead his army as they defeat Ptolemy Xlll's forces. After the battle, Tolomeo is killed in the palace by Sesto onstage. This is almost never done in early operas because they followed the ancient Greek convention of keeping all violence offstage. The historians, however, clearly state that Ptolemy actually drowned in the Nile during the flight from the battlefield after the Egyptian forces collapsed. Sesto's revenge, although a very effective plot device, is therefore a fiction. Likewise, Ptolemy's death onstage is not accurate, but having the guy in the black hat kill the guy in the white hat is a proud tradition, which works dramatically, and is difficult to criticize.
Ultimately, we must realize that plot will defeat history more often than not. The central focus of the plot, however, is the affection and respect that grows between Caesar and Cleopatra, which is as solid historically as it is sentimentally desirable. There is one historical reservation about the resolution of the struggle for the throne. To conclude that Caesar placed Cleopatra VII on the Egyptian throne in undisputed control would be correct dramatically, but wrong historically. In Caesar's settlement, taking into consideration the strong support Ptolemy XIII had in the population, he made Cleopatra VII queen, and made Ptolemy XIV, another half-brother, her co-ruler. Cleopatra VII promptly married Ptolemy XIV, as custom dictated. Cleopatra arrived in Rome with Ptolemy XIV the next year, bringing along Ptolemy XV Caesarian, Caesar's child, in her entourage. We assume that their relationship resumed after her arrival. She was still in Rome when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BCE.
Program Notes by John Forestner - a Fort Worth physician who has a special interest in ancient history and in the music and operas of the Baroque period. Dr. Forestner also serves on the Board of Directors for Fort Worth Opera.