Opera seria is a style that had a span of a bit more than a century, approximately between 1680 and 1795. Naples was the birth place of opera seria with composers such as Francesco Provenzale, Alessandro Scarlatti and Niccolò Porpora, and it was from them that Georg Friedrich Händel learned the style and afterwards perfected it becoming its greatest creator.
Two librettists exerced a powerful influence: Apostolo Zeno and especially Pietro Metastasio. Zeno, though Venetian, "established the formula for the Italian opera libretto that was accepted by Metastasio" (Grove´s Dictionary). And the latter´s popularity was enormous ("his 27 librettos were set to music over 1000 times in the 18th century", Harvard´s Dictionary of Music). Main features: characters and subjects drawn from classical history or legend, a rigid structure made of recitatives and arias for "prima" or "seconda donna" and "primo" or "secondo uomo", almost no choruses, duets or concertantes only closing the acts, and a supportive orchestra that accompanies the singers but also plays an overture, a march or introductions to the arias. "Bel canto" is born: beautiful singing; not only virtuoso florid passages but also long melodies (later on the term will be applied also to the very different virtuosity of nineteenth century Romanticism). And the castrato was a feature as primo and/or secondo uomo: the purity of a child´s voice with the strength and volume of an adult: Senesino or Farinelli were immensely successful stars but the sounds they produced affected the verisimilitude of the dramatic action, even if they were attractive.
Händel took London by storm when he premièred his "Rinaldo" there in 1711 and the success determined him to stay there and become the principal composer of opera seria in Great Britain´s capital for more than two decades. "Giulio Cesare", on a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, was premièred in 1724 at the King´s Theatre and became his most often staged operatic creation. But tastes changed and opera seria was superseded by the Romantic intensity of the nineteenth century and the innovations of the first half of the twentieth. Musicologists and editors began a resurrection before World War II, still quite arbitrary in style; however, after the war much more relevant work was done and the world had reliable editions. Notwithstanding, there was a main problem: what to do with the castrato parts if such an aberration didn´t exist anymore. In the fifties and sixties the solution was a baritone, dramatically logical though it needed adjustments in the orchestra. But Alfred Deller rediscovered the art of the countertenor after two centuries, a reinforced head emission typically British and never before used in opera seria. And gradually in the seventies the new breed of countertenors started to sing the castrato roles along with mezzosopranos. They can´t replace castratos and no true historicism is possible.
Winton Dean, the greatest Händel specialist, specifies in his programme notes to the René Jacobs recording the roles and voices of Händel´s time: alto castratos Cesare and Tolomeo, sopranos Cleopatra and Sesto (but the latter was afterwards revised for tenor), contralto Cornelia and baritone Achilla. He doesn´t mention Nireno, an eunuch (castrato) and Curio, a baritone. "Giulio Cesare" underwent several revisions, for Händel adapted the music to his available casts (1725, 1730, 1732). It was his most successful opera and not only in England during his life, and it remains so: in 1991 Dean says it was offered during the twentieth century in "well over 200 productions in many countries". The plot is historical: Tolomeo and Cleopatra are joint Pharaohs, the last in Egypt´s long history; Cesare defeats the villain Tolomeo and marries Cleopatra, who remains a vassal queen to Cesare. Cornelia is the widow of Cesare´s courageous enemy Pompeo and mother of Sesto, who wants revenge on Tolomeo, who killed Pompeo. And Achilla, a warrior of Tolomeo, turns against him and helps Cesare to win a decisive battle before dying.
It´s a long opera, almost four hours, and the main characters sing a lot: Cleopatra has eight arias (!), Cesare almost as many, and the others all have arias except Curio. The music is throughout of astonishing quality, both in the melodic slow sad arias and in the fast virtuosic ones, and the orchestration is varied, including horn, flute and violin solos; the duet of Cornelia and Sesto ending the First Act is of haunting beauty. The libretto by Haym is based on the one written by G.F.Bussani in 1677, though with many changes and addenda.
"Giulio Cesare" had an early première in Buenos Aires, when Washington Castro conducted it for the Asociación de Conciertos de Cámara in 1959, a very honorable performance. And in 1968 a starry one at the Colón: Sills, Treigle (bass-baritone), Forrester, Schreier, Crass, conductor Karl Richter; intelligent production by Ernst Pöttgen. We had to wait until 2017 for a Colón revival, though during the Lombardero tenure at the Argentino it was premièred at La Plata. Buenos Aires Lírica gave us "Agrippina" and "Rodelinda" and the Colón, "Serse" soon after "Giulio Cesare", and in recent years "Rinaldo", though in a concert version. There are still about 35 operas of Händel that haven´t been heard in our city...
And how fares the current "Giulio Cesare in Egitto"? (the new appellation defended by some recent scholars that goes against Händel´s usual policy of naming them with only the name of the protagonist)? As so often nowadays, rather interesting musically, and a disaster as a production. Two artists made their welcome debut: Amanda Majeski as an attractive Cleopatra equally adept to lightness and intense melancholy; and Jake Arditti as that rare thing, a soprano countertenor, a Sesto of beautiful timbre and completely smooth singing. Franco Fagioli is a countertenor star but I much preferred him as Rinaldo; now he has acquired a bad trait: as the music descends to the low notes his voice changes and instead of sounding like a countertenor he seems a mediocre baritone; his highs are brilliant though his florid passages sound mechanical.
As Tolomeo Flavio Oliver (Colón debut, heard at La Plata last year in a contemporary opera, "Written on skin") was so grotesquely handled by producer Pablo Maritano that his accurate but acid singing and agile calisthenics seemed a parody. And the fourth (!) countertenor, Martín Oro, was a mincing, disagreeable Nireno. Two local stalwarts compensated partially: a noble, clearly etched Cornelia by Adriana Mastrángelo, and a firm performance by Hernán Iturralde of the lascivious rough Achilla. And the young baritone Mariano Gladic was a fine Curio. Martin Haselböck as conductor had the Colón Orchestra with the addenda of two recorders, two theorbos, a viola da gamba and a harpsichord, but the bland articulation of the strings was hardly historicist, and I longed for an augmented Barroca del Suquía instead.
Maritano ruined whatever pleasure Händel connoisseurs could have with an insolent, kitschy contemporary staging which looked like a cross of Tinelli and Las Vegas. The costumes by Sofía Di Nunzio were particularly ugly, and the unnecessary choreography by Carlos Trunsky was inane throughout. The only saving grace was a skillful stage design and lighting by Enrique Bordolini based on a sui generis black pyramid of changing facets. Händel´s Harp Concerto was added in absurd dancing interludes.
For Buenos Aires Herald