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The View from Pompey's Head

One of the most important characters in Giulio Cesare — the murdered Roman general Pompey — never appears onstage. GARRY WILLS takes a look at three of the Cesare characters affected by Pompey, and at the three great singers who created the roles for Handel.

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The head of Pompey is delivered to Julius Caesar in Caesar Before Alexandria, an eighteenth-century oil painting by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini (1675–1741)
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery/The Bridgeman Art Library
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Francesco Bernardi (1686–1758), the great contralto castrato known as Senesino, who created the title role in Giulio Cesare
© Lebrecht Music & Arts/ColouriserAL 2013
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Mrs. Anastasia Robinson (1692–1755), Handel's first Cornelia
Gerald Coke Handel Collection, Foundling Museum, London/The Bridgeman Art Library

Giulio Cesare is named for Caesar and has a sexy Cleopatra in it; but the brooding omnipresence in the opera is Pompey the Great, Caesar's opponent in the Roman Civil War. This prominence is surprising, since Pompey has been stabbed and beheaded before the opera begins. But revulsion from his severed head in the opening scene kicks off the real action of the piece, and interment of the head's ashes gives us the first solemn ceremony in it. Pompey's widow and son mourn and seek to avenge him throughout the opera. And the opera's plot is resolved only when Pompey's killer is killed. 

Why so much emphasis on Pompey? Theater tales about the end of the Roman Republic are usually drawn from Plutarch's Parallel Lives of Greek and Roman heroes. But Shakespeare, Dryden, Shaw and others have turned most often to Plutarch's lives of Caesar and of Antony. Not as much attention has been paid to his life of Pompey. Yet that biography introduces us to Pompey's wife, Cornelia — who, Plutarch tells us, was young when he married her (four years before his death), beautiful, learned and from a famous family. She was loyal to her husband in life, and she stayed loyal after she watched from a ship in Alexandria's harbor as he was treacherously killed in a small boat taking him to shore. 

This Cornelia is, in Handel's opera, a center of international intrigue and of crisscrossing lusts. Though the audience expects Cleopatra to be the main sexual interest, Cornelia is the woman who at her first appearance is leered at by one man (Achilla) and hit on by another (Curio). In the course of the action, three men vie for her, and in David McVicar's production two attempt to rape her. No one, by contrast, expresses sexual interest in Cleopatra except Caesar, and he is responding to her industrious wooing. This is more attention than we expect for Cornelia. We should remember, though, that she was not always neglected. She was important enough in Shakespeare's time for Robert Garnier's play Cornélie (1573) to be translated into English by Thomas Kyd in 1594. 

It helps in assessing the importance of Cornelia in Handel's opera to know about the woman Handel wrote the part for. (His regular London librettist, Francesco Haym, normally shaped old texts for the singers Handel had in mind at any premiere.) The original Cornelia was Anastasia Robinson, a great London favorite for whom Handel wrote six roles. She was a celebrity in and out of the opera house. Her secret marriage to the noble Earl of Peterborough lent spice to her reputation, since she was thought to be his mistress. George Meredith even wrote a novel about the couple, Lord Ormont and his Aminta. When Robinson retired, her salon for musical and literary figures included celebrities such as Alexander Pope.

Handel's Cornelia provides a kind of still center for the action around her. Other characters plunge from heights to depths. Caesar goes from glorious conqueror to sea-bedraggled man on the run. Cleopatra goes from chirpy flirtatiousness to tragic imprisonment. But Cornelia is just miserable throughout. She alternates between wanting to kill herself and want­ing to kill her husband's killers. Her son Sesto is a kind of private chorus echoing her laments. 

This is just the kind of part Robinson relished. She could have taken out a patent on pathos. The "Patient Grisell" of Giovanni Bononcini's Griselda (1722) was tailored for her. When Handel wrote a scold's part for Robinson in Ottone, she insisted that its sharpness be removed. She must be always plaintive. Handel is said to have written music to support her contracting range in the 1720s. In Giulio Cesare, her last opera with Handel, the soft woodwinds that seem almost cooingly to comfort her in her first aria may confirm (or may have originated) that story.

The singer for whom Handel created his Cleopatra was almost as fiery and scandalous as the figure she plays in the opera. She had represented a theater-saving gamble on Handel's part. When funds and audiences were dwindling at his Royal Academy of Music, he sent an extravagant offer to the newest sensation of Italy, Francesca Cuzzoni. He delayed the premiere of the opera he had just composed, Ottone, in order to launch it on her fame. He was frightened when she showed up "short and squat" (in Horace Walpole's words) and unwilling to take Handel's directions. The tall composer, finally exasperated, took the short singer around her not-so-slender waist, lifted her, charged at the window and threatened to throw her out.

But Handel's gamble paid off. Her singing stunned audiences. Charles Burney, the great music critic of the day (one of the greatest ever) exhausted superlatives on her. Her coloratura fireworks were so pinpoint accurate that "it was not in her power to sing out of tune." That was the singer of "Da tempesta" in this opera: freed from prison, reunited with Caesar, ready to rally her Egyptian troops, she is so delirious with joy that it just keeps geysering out of her. On the other hand, Burney is filled with awe at her poised delicacy and pacing of a slow tune such as "Piangerò," which shows her "art of conducting, sustaining, increasing, and diminishing her tones by minute degrees … occasionally accelerating and retarding the measure." 

The Cleopatra of this opera differs from that in other operas, since she does not seduce Caesar in her own person. She first works on him in the guise of her servant Lydia. This seems a roundabout way to do things. But she betrays her real name only when Caesar is in danger and she inadvertently blurts it, marking a change in her whole attitude. As Lydia she is all artifice and fake love. As Cleopatra she is all sincerity and real love. She goes from over-the-top vamp to the wrung-out desolation of "Piangerò."

It is good that this role came so early for Cuzzoni in London. In the eight additional operas Handel wrote for her, raucous enthusiasts increasingly troubled the audience. Young girls were such militant fans of Cuzzoni that they imitated one of her grotesque costumes as a way of waving her flag. (Forerunner of Lady Gaga?) Partisans of a rival soprano, Faustina Bordoni, took up the fray. Their feud may remind modern listeners of the competition between fans of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi. (Bordoni was the Callas of the pair, since she added to her vocal technique the acting skills Cuzzoni lacked.) But the eighteenth-century musical battles were more violent than recent ones. One night in 1727, wrangling in the audience boiled up onto the stage, and the management of the Royal Academy (which included Handel) tried to ban Cuzzoni from the house — until King George II made it clear he wanted her there. Handel, who had tried to throw her out a window, found he could not even throw her out of the theater. She was indispensable. The Cuzzoni–Bordoni sopraniad entered musical history when John Gay made them the models for his squabbling rivals, Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, in The Beggar's Opera (1728).

Handel did not rely simply on cantankerous sopranos to make his operas talked about. Working hard to keep the company afloat, he found, gathered and bought the best singers in England or on the Continent, then wrote to their particular skills and combined them in casts of five, six or even seven stars — testing the resources of later companies with so many demanding parts. The solid center of this temperamental crew was the great castrato of the age, Francesco Bernardi, known as Senesino. Critics celebrated his spectacular gifts. He could explode into splintery showers of sound, as when Cesare flings away with disgust the offered "gift" of Pompey's severed head  ("Empio, dirò, tu sei"). But he also had a sweet mezza voce, which gave inwardness to his meditative recitatives, none more famous than two in this opera. In "Alma del gran Pompeo," he reflects on mortality over the ashes of Pompey. In "Dall' ondoso periglio," he is dragging himself out of death, numb at being only half-reanimated, dumbfounded that breezes still blow, seeing death all around him and Cleopatra gone. As these impressions slide through his mind, we get a moving psychological experiment in the stream of semi-consciousness.

This Caesar is no empty miles gloriosus, as some actors make him in Shakespeare's play. He does voice early his famous third-person claim, "Caesar came, he saw, he conquered" (Cesare venne e vide e vinse). But immediately thereafter, he shows a humane magnanimity, granting Cornelia's plea for peace with her conquered husband. He says, "Let the conquered conquer the conqueror" (sia vincitor del vincitore il vinto) — a nice pendant to the historical boast.

In Plutarch, Cornelia sees the murder of Pompey while he is fleeing from Caesar in the boat at Alexandria. Here, she is kept in the dark about his death; she thinks he is still running after being conquered by Caesar. This makes possible Handel's early coup de théâtre when Pompey's severed head is revealed. All four of the Romans present are called on to react at once — Cornelia and Sesto with anguish, Caesar's aide Curio with shock, Caesar with righteous indignation. This prepares Caesar for the depth of his reflections as he consecrates Pompey's ashes.

After this humane and serious opening, Cleopatra's opening scene presents a shallow person. Her rival/brother, the boy-pharaoh Tolomeo (Ptolemy), says he will wrest the throne from her. She laughs him off, saying he is at an age for finding himself a girl, not a crown — and, who knows, he might even find one. Over and over she flings the chirpy taunt at him, Chi sa? Chi sa? She does not realize that her kid brother is dangerous. She will learn. She must be surprised by suffering love. Caesar, on the other hand, is not one to be surprised. He is more like Shaw's Caesar, who — to paraphrase Chesterton — moves like an eagle walking with wings folded.

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Soprano Francesca Cuzzoni (1696–1778), who created eleven roles for Handel, including Cleopatra
© De Agostini/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2013

With that exception, Handel did not make his orchestra compete with the singers' voices. Singers and instruments dance to each other. In the orchestra, breezes blow, waves wash, birds twitter, trumpets do battle, at the demands of the plot. A particularly witty touch is the way a hunting horn sounds through Caesar's counter-stalking of Tolemeo's attempt to stalk him ("Va tacito"). The stage band, with harp, viola da gamba and theorbo, gives a dreamy otherworldliness to the "Mount Parnassus" scenes. It will be noticed that the imagery here and elsewhere is entirely Greek and Roman, with gods who belong on Parnassus. There are no attempts at an "Eastern" feel, as with Verdi's Egypt. Readers of Plutarch always remembered that Cleopatra was a Greek, the descendant of Alexander's armies. That is why the henchman of her Greek brother also has a Greek name, Achilla (Achillas). This is classical opera throughout. This is one of the operas in which Handel pulled out all the stops. Besides the three singers already mentioned, he had four more to deploy, giving each a part to shine in with his or her particular gifts. There were two more castratos, along with Senesino. The adolescent Tolomeo was played by Gaetano Berenstadt. Cleopatra's eunuch Nireno was Giuseppe Bigonzi. Cornelia's son, who finally gets to kill his father's killer, was soprano Margherita Durastanti. That killer of Pompey, Achilla, was played by Handel's favorite villain, bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi. He was kept in so perpetual a state of fury that, it was claimed, in fifteen operas for Handel he rarely had a soft or slow moment. In an opera otherwise filled with high castrato or female voices, his growl is a welcome bit of low violence. He was so powerful that Handel did not hesitate to weave counter-melodies through his arias. Boschi could carry them. 

The wonder of Handel's operas at this period is that he assembled so many separate starbursts into shapely constellations; that under all the baroque ornaments, the trills and roulades effortlessly thrown off by every singer, he could probe psychic depths, giving us a humane Caesar, a chastened Cleopatra, a suffering Cornelia, in a convincing narrative, with all their attendant friends and enemies strewing obstacles and rescues as they make their way through beautiful danger. Thanks to modern scholarship on the score, and to ever-heightening baroque skill in modern singers, we can share the beauty and peril of the journey. spacer 

GARRY WILLS is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University and author of Verdi's Shakespeare: Men of the Theater. 

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Current Issue: August 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 2