Julius Caesar has a distinguished history at ENO, going back to Janet Baker’s famous interpretation of the title role in a production conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras. The opera’s enduring popularity lies in its historically familiar storyline and in the way that Handel, through inspired composition, builds intense, believable human drama upon the formal structures and conventions of eighteenth-century opera.
Caesar has pursed the defeated Pompey to Egypt, where he is made welcome; his plan to sue for peace, following an appeal by Pompey’s wife Cornelia, is thwarted by Pompey’s murder at the behest of Egypt’s co-ruler, Tolomeo. Pompey’s son Sesto swears vengeance and the plot begins to revolve around political – and emotional – alliances. Tolomeo is fascinated by Cornelia’s beauty; proud and noble, she is forced to beat off not only Tolomeo’s attentions, but those of his commander Achilla, to whom she has been rashly promised as a reward for the killing of Caesar. Tolomeo’s sister, the beautiful queen Cleopatra, sets out to seduce the by no means unwilling Caesar and form an alliance with him against her despotic brother. The opera ends as Sesto, now at the head of Tolomeo’s defecting army, kills him in a duel, while Caesar rescues Cleopatra. All are united as peace is restored.
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