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The Story of 'Julius Caesar'

Handel's sumptuously scored opera features deeply drawn characters who face love, war, and a struggle for power.

ACT ONE: Handel's opera Julius Caesar recounts the great love story between Caesar and Cleopatra — except it's not quite that simple. Handel wove distinctly operatic threads into the tale. The piece was first performed at the King's Theater in London, in February 1724.

To understand Handel's plot, knowing who's who is a good place to start. First, the Romans: Caesar, of course, is the Roman General; then there's Cornelia, the wife of Pompeo, whom Caesar has just defeated in battle; and there's also Sesto, who is Cornelia and Pompeo's son; and finally, Curio, a Roman official.

The opera is set in Egypt's Nile Valley, where Caesar has tracked the defeated Pompeo. So now, the Egyptians: First, Cleopatra, the Queen; then Tolomeo, her brother, the King; there's also Achilla, head of the Egyptian army and counselor to Tolomeo; and Nireno, confidante of both King and Queen.

The Egyptian people welcome Caesar as the opera opens. He agrees to meet with Cornelia and Sesto, who are petitioning him for a peace settlement on behalf of Pompeo. In the middle of the discussion, Achilla arrives with gifts from Tolomeo — one of them is the severed head of Pompeo. Caesar is livid, promising to punish Tolomeo, while Sesto swears revenge for his father's murder. Cornelia, now suddenly a widow, is naturally devastated — even though she receives an immediate marriage proposal from Curio.

Meanwhile, Nireno brings the bad news to Cleopatra, but she views this as an opportunity to become the sole leader of Egypt. Her plan is to seduce Caesar and dethrone her brother, the king. Cleopatra disguises herself as an Egyptian maiden and tells Caesar she's been swindled by Tolomeo. Taken by her beauty, Caesar promises to help.

In the royal palace, Caesar and Tolomeo finally meet, and although it's obvious that they can't stand each other, Caesar accepts the hospitality of an overnight stay in the royal apartments. Unexpectedly, Sesto and Cornelia show up in a rage, hurling insults and threats at Tolomeo. He responds by simply having them arrested, and the act closes with a bittersweet duet between mother and son, as they're dragged away by guards.

As ACT TWO opens, Cleopatra's plan of seduction is in full swing. She asks her confidante Nireno if every detail is in place. She intends, as she puts it, to make Caesar her "prisoner of love."

Disguised, Cleopatra begins her big production number, a kind of Busby Berkeley spectacle, complete with celestial music, a Mount Parnassus set, and nine Muses surrounding her. She sings a voluptuous aria about Caesar's sexy eyes, and the way they pierce her heart. Caesar responds with an aria of his own, as he has clearly fallen for the beguiling woman.

Meanwhile, in Tolomeo's palace garden, Cornelia laments her imprisonment. She's been sentenced to weed and hoe the flowers. Apparently just for fun, Tolomeo himself tries to seduce her, a gutsy move, given that he's the one who ordered the murder of her husband in Act One. Calling him insane, Cornelia brushes Tolomeo away. In return for her rejection, Tolomeo says she will taste his venom.

Cornelia contemplates suicide, but Sesto arrives in time to stop her. Nireno has released him from Tolomeo's prison, but there's bad news. Cornelia is to be thrown into a different kind of prison — Tolomeo's harem. As a counter-plan, Nireno promises to plant Sesto in the harem, disguised, so he can kill Tolomeo before the King can get his hands on Cornelia.

The scene switches to Cleopatra, who has kept her promised rendezvous with Caesar. In the middle of what could have been a love duet, Curio steps in to tell both of them that there's a plot afoot to kill Caesar. In the confusion, Cleopatra reveals her real identity and advises Caesar to run for it. In a flashy aria, Caesar says he'll defend himself. Act Two closes with one of Handel's most beautiful arias, "Se pietà," a lament from Cleopatra as she realizes that her grand plan is crumbling around her.

In ACT THREE, Handel turns the screws a little tighter — starting with Achilla. He's the general of King Tolomeo's army, and he's had enough. Achilla is moving his allegiance and troops over to Tolomeo's sister, Queen Cleopatra. But it's no use, as Tolomeo's forces have already captured her. In an aria alternating between tears and tirades, Cleopatra laments her predicament, believing that Caesar has died.

But Caesar has escaped, and on the battlefield he finds a wounded Achilla handing a signet ring to Sesto, ensuring the loyalty of Achilla's troops. Caesar takes the ring, saying he'll save Cleopatra himself.

As Cleopatra bids farewell to her friends, Caesar arrives with his men, and the two are reunited. Meanwhile, in Tolomeo's chamber, Cornelia again refuses his advances, and at a crucial moment when she's about to stab him, Sesto steps in to do the job himself. The opera closes with general rejoicing. Sesto and his mother Cornelia are welcomed as friends, and Caesar and Cleopatra declare their love forever.

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