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Theatre / Giulio Cesare in Egitto

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Giulio Cesare in Egitto, often shortened to Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar in Egypt), is a 1725 opera by George Frederic Handel, considered to be one of his best works and one of the best-known Baroque operas overall nowadays. The libretto by Nicola Haym is a rewrite of an earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani (adapted to music by Antonio Sartorio; it's believed Händel used some of his music too when writing his version) and is extremely loosely based on the relationship of Cleopatra VII and Julius Caesar, and the civil conflict in Egypt in which they were involved.


Julius Caesar arrives in Egypt and decides to make peace with Pompey, only for Ptolemy’s henchman Achillas to arrive with Pompey’s head. Caesar is disgusted and promises to make the pharaoh pay. Pompey’s widow and son, Cornelia and Sextus, swear vengeance as well.

Meanwhile, Ptolemy’s sister Cleopatra believes the throne should be hers since she’s the eldest, so she decides to get Caesar to help her with her rebellion. Disguised as a lady-in-waiting names Lidia, she arrives at his camp and says she is a highborn woman and Ptolemy has stolen what’s her birthright. Caesar is immediately smitten and promises to help her. After a while, Cleopatra realizes she has fallen in love with him as well.

Cornelia and Sextus, attempting to get their revenge, are captured by Ptolemy instead, and Cornelia finds both Ptolemy and Achillas vying for her favors. But Ptolemy makes the mistake of promising Cornelia’s hand to his general and then going back on his word in the most humiliating manner possible, so Achillas switches to Cleopatra’s side. When Caesar and Cleopatra’s army is defeated, the mortally wounded Achillas gives Sextus the ring with the commander’s sigil and tells him where the relief troops are hiding. Caesar, whom everyone thought dead, emerges alive and well, and the tide of the battle turns. Sextus is finally able to kill Ptolemy, and Caesar crowns Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt.


The opera and its productions contain examples of:

  • 100% Adoration Rating: Caesar is universally beloved in Egypt (Ptolemy and initially Achillas being the only known exceptions), so that everyone squees at the news that Egypt will now be subject to Rome.
  • Anachronism Stew: Done in the ENO production to imitate the style of Händel's lifetime. Back then, whatever the setting of the plot, men wore armor that had a vaguely Roman look and women wore contemporary dresses.
  • Aroused by Their Voice: Cleopatra sings a song to Caesar to ensure her seduction works, and it does – he is completely entranced by her voice as much as by her looks.
  • Artistic License – History: A norm for opera, especially in the Baroque period.
    • The fact that Cleopatra and her brother were married is never referenced, and neither is Caesar’s own marriage.
    • At the time of the plot, the Real Life Sextus Pompey was busy rebelling against Caesar, not making friends with him as he does in the opera. He also, most probably, had nothing to do with the death of Ptolemy.
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    • Achillas dies earlier than his historical counterpart, and in an entirely different way.
  • As You Know: For the audience's benefit, Caesar and Curius decide to remind each other who Cornelia is in the beginning of the first act.
  • Back for the Finale: The entire cast, including the dead Ptolemy and Achillas, gathers for the final chorus.
  • Bald of Evil: Ptolemy often has one. In the ENO opera film, he is also surrounded by identical bald minions.
  • Beautiful Dreamer: Invoked by Cleopatra, when she pretends to be asleep so that Caesar would openly confess his feelings for her. It works.
  • Becoming the Mask: Cleopatra initially seduces Caesar to make him her ally, but ends up really falling in love with him.
  • Big Damn Heroes: Sextus bursts in dramatically to save Cornelia, twice – first to stop her from killing herself, then to rescue her from Ptolemy.
  • BSoD Song:
    • Cleopatra’s Piangeró la sorte mia is the most famous one. She sings it when she is captured by Ptolemy with no hope of escaping and believes Caesar to be killed.
    • Caesar’s Aure, dei, per pietá – when Caesar has barely survived leaping into the sea, his troops are scattered, and he doesn’t know what has happened to Cleopatra.
  • Comforting the Widow: Curius tries it with Cornelia mere minutes after Pompey’s head is brought in. Achillas and Ptolemy aren’t too far behind him.
  • Condescending Compassion: Cleopatra towards Ptolemy when she tells him that it’s not a big deal he can’t inherit the throne, after all, he still has his harem!
  • Contralto of Danger:
    • Inverted with the female characters – Cornelia, a contralto, is the more timid of them, and Cleopatra, a soprano, is the tougher one.
    • Played straight if Caesar, Ptolemy and/or Sextus are sung by women.
  • Creepy Crossdresser: In his first appearance in David McVicar’s production, Ptolemy is dressed exactly like Cleopatra, who is onstage at the moment as well and whom he proceeds to grope.
  • Creepy High-Pitched Voice: Ptolemy is usually sung by a countertenor (the part was originally written for alto castrato).
  • Crosscast Role: The majority of the parts were written for castrato voices, and now every role except Achillas and Curius (both of them basses) can be sung by women. Sometimes, Sextus and Nirenus can even get their gender changed to make the casting and costuming easier – since them being female makes zero difference to the plot.
  • Darker and Edgier: A downplayed example with the ENO opera film starring Janet Baker and Valerie Masterson, which is made in a more serious tone than most productions.
  • Death by Adaptation: In Sartorio's opera, Ptolemy is put in chains but not killed.
  • Deathbed Confession: Before dying, Achillas tells Sextus and Nirenus that he murdered Pompey and started the coup against Caesar. The audience knows the latter, and the former is more or less easy to figure out, but Sextus, Nirenus and Caesar (who’s listening at a distance) are shocked and disgusted.
  • Demoted to Extra: Curius was a much more prominent character in Sartorio's opera; in particular, he had several arias. In Händel's, he has a handful of recitatives, and even these are often cut.
  • Dishonored Dead:
    • Pompey’s severed head is brought to Caesar as a welcoming gift. Caesar is mortified.
    • After Achillas dies, Sextus commands to throw "the worthless corpse" into the sea. Averted in the ENO production, where that line is cut and Caesar respectfully closes Achillas’s eyes.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: Curius, perhaps the only unambiguously nice guy in the whole story, gets repeatedly rejected by Cornelia. In Sartorio/Bussani's earlier version, she does accept him in the end, but Händel/Haym‘s version lacks that part.
  • Dude Magnet: Surprisingly for an opera about Cleopatra, it’s not her but Cornelia, who has three suitors.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Ptolemy can maintain a polite and courteous facade, if not for very long.
  • Flowery Insults: Caesar sings a six-minute aria where he subtly compares Ptolemy to a hunter setting a snare.
  • Good Stepmother: Cornelia for Sextus – in the stagings that stick to the fact that Sextus was Pompey’s son by one of his previous wives. It’s either that or they are Related in the Adaptation and made mother and son.
  • Grief Song: Cornelia’s Priva son d’ogni conforto, after she sees her husband’s head brought to Caesar.
  • "The Hero Sucks" Song: Ptolemy’s L’empio, sleale, indegno, where he explains in detail what he thinks of Caesar.
  • Im Dying Please Take My Macguffin: Achillas to Nirenus and Sextus (it’s ambiguous whether he recognizes either of them at any point) when he gives them the ring.
  • King Incognito: Cleopatra gets disguised as a servant and calls herself Lidia.
  • Love at First Sight: Again, pretty common in baroque opera.
    • Achillas for Cornelia.
    • Caesar for Cleopatra.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Hardly a surprise in baroque opera, it includes almost everyone. So: Caesar and Cleopatra fall in love with each other, Cornelia was Happily Married to Pompey, is loved by Curius and pursued by Achillas and Ptolemy. Curius also nearly makes a move at Cleopatra (in her Lidia disguise), and some adaptations include the real life-based Incest Subtext between Cleopatra and Ptolemy.
  • Love Redeems: Achillas’s love for Cornelia is what triggers his Heel–Face Turn.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: Two of Achillas’s arias sound like war songs and are actually (from his point of view, at least) sweet confessions of love.
  • Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal: As Achillas puts it, "who doesn’t have honor deserves no loyalty".
  • Parents in Distress: Sextus has to save his mother (or Parental Substitute stepmother, if the adaptation sticks to the historical fact) from Ptolemy.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Cornelia’s first reason for rejecting Achillas is not that he is Ptolemy’s cruel henchman, or that he tries to threaten her into acceptance, or that he brought her husband’s head to Caesar, or anything of that sort, but:
    "I, a Roman, wife to a vile Egyptian?!"
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Sartorio's opera was way longer, had a way more convoluted plot and Loads and Loads of Characters who are constantly falling in love with/declaring hate for/getting disguised as each other. Haym's removal of many of Bussani's details brings focus to the two main plotlines (Caesar and Cleopatra, Cornelia and Sextus), both dramatically and musically.
  • Reason Before Honor: As Ptolemy steadily refuses fighting honorably, Sextus ends up killing him when he’s defenseless in his harem.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Achillas is killed trying to overthrow Ptolemy (or, in some productions, by Ptolemy himself before he even gets a chance to try).
  • Replacement Goldfish: Curius considers trying his luck with "Lidia" since Cornelia has rejected him again.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Cornelia and Sextus just walk into the palace and try to attack Ptolemy with absolutely no backup except for Non-Action Guy Nirenus. Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for them.
  • Reverse Mole: Nirenus is Cleopatra’s man in the palace and quietly sabotages Ptolemy’s plots (for example, freeing Sextus).
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: A villainous example with the boyish-voiced Ptolemy, who loves to rhapsodize about the beauty of his concubines (or potential concubines) and about how he’ll torture and kill his enemies, and the Badass Baritone Achillas whose arias have much less elaborate lyrics and who prefers brutal force over poisonous cunning.
  • Setting Update: Done more often than not in modern productions, with the 2005 David McVicar production moving the plot to India of the 19th century, and the 2013 one from Salzburg – to modern Egypt.
  • Sibling Rivalry: Cleopatra and Ptolemy’s war for the throne of Egypt.
  • Villain Love Song:
    • Achillas has two – Tu sei il cor di questo core (You are the heart of this heart) and the frequently cut Se a me non sei crudele (If you aren’t cruel to me). Many productions have him sing them with genuine tenderness, but the fact that he organized the murder of Cornelia’s husband and imprisoned her son does not help his cause.
    • Ptolemy has Belle dée (Beautiful goddesses), addressed to his entire harem.
  • "The Villain Sucks" Song: Caesar’s Empio, diró, tu sei – the first verse is directed at Achillas, the second at Ptolemy (though in some productions, like the ENO’s version with Janet Baker, it’s entirely about Ptolemy).
  • Warrior Poet: Caesar is a great conqueror and has all of the most poetic and philosophical arias in the opera.
  • Why Don't You Just Shoot Him?: Even after he’s finished with his Evil Gloating and with no intentions to spare Cleopatra, Ptolemy, for no reason, keeps her alive long enough for Caesar to find and rescue her.
  • Worthy Opponent: Caesar highly admires Pompey’s leadership skills and courage and is ready to reconcile with him.
  • You Got Spunk: In David McVicar’s production, Achillas finds it endearing when Cornelia pushes him away again and again. When she slaps him so hard he falls back, he grins in delight.

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