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With true art, comes endless inspiration. Shakespeare left us with not just 154 sonnets and 38 plays, but a fountain of never-ceasing inspiration, which have influenced many other artists in all realms. An opportunity arose for me to view the operatic adaptation of two titles that would immediately be linked to Shakespeare – Julius Caesar, or Giulio Cesare, and Hamlet. Both being composed and performed by world-class artists, offered a new light to the analysis of the original Shakespearean plays.
Julius Caesar, or Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt), was written by George Fredrick Handel in 1724. Its original Italian libretto was written by Nicola Francesco Haym, who had collaborated with Handel on many other occasions. The version which will be discussed here was performed in English with Janet Baker as Julius Caesar and Valerie Masterson as Cleopatra. Having little to do with the Shakespearean play, which mainly deals with the betrayal of his friend, Brutus, and his assassination long after his victorious moments in Egypt, this can be considered a prelude to it. The plot begins with the exultation of victory in battle against Pompey, who has fled to Egypt. Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s tyrannous brother sends Caesar a gift in the form of Pompey’s head. The gift was meant to fortify the relationship between their two empires, however Caesar was mortified by the humiliation inflicted upon Pompey. Cleopatra plans a trip to Rome and meets Caesar. She is disguised as a servant girl and tells Caesar of Ptolemy’s tyrannous actions. She also overhears Pompey’s widow, Cornelia, and her son talk of avenging their father’s murder. She reveals her true identity to them and assures them that they will have her support. In Egypt, Cornelia and Sesto are both caught and imprisoned. While Cleopatra further seduces Caesar, she eventually reveals her identity to him. However, a riot starts about the palace and forces Caesar to leave the palace. With Cleopatra captured and Caesar’s legion seemingly defeated, Caesar despairs. He soon discovers a few of his loyal and surviving soldiers and returns to save Cleopatra. The opera ends with the coronation of the rightful queen of Egypt and yet another exultation of Caesar’s victory.
Since the plot is different, it would be meaningless to compare. However, this baroque opera may not suit the taste of many Shakespearean scholars. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is depicted as the epitome of manhood, a true hero, and a prince who rose too high and thus had a great fall. In Handel’s opera, the role is originally given to a alto castrato. Since they no longer practice the act of castrating young men in order to preserve their high-pitched voices. The role is now performed by a mezzo-soprano or even a soprano rather than a more robust and manly bass baritone, or perhaps a tenor. That may be justified by the fact that Handel’s piece was more of a romance where a man’s effeminacy and sentimentality must prevail over all his other, more manly character traits.
This piece was written no too long after the death of Shakespeare. After considering all factors of influence, including history, politics, and artistic development, it can be said that this adaptation offers an interesting comparison to that of Shakespeare’s fall of prince tragedy.
The nineteenth century French composer, Ambroise Thomas composed the music for the French opera, Hamlet. The libretto, by Michel Carre and Barbier, was based on the Shakespearean Hamlet, but also used the French adaptations by Alexander Dumas and Paul Meurice as reference. Being a mere dilettante in opera, I would have ignorantly dismissed this work if it had not been for Natalie Dessay’s role as Ophelia.
Though this version diverges only slightly from the original, there are some interesting aspects to it that a stage play might not be able to apply. The use of colors vastly intensifies the themes of the story and emphasizes each of the character’s overt personality and character trait. Gertrude, for instance, has two outfits - one of them a bright golden yellow, the other a darkish purple, both colors of royalty. On the other hand, Ophelia wears a white dress, which highlights her innocence and naivety. The scene where she stabs herself creates greater feeling of horror and grievance in the audience because her red blood flows against the background of her white nightdress. The same effect can be seen in an earlier scene where Hamlet spills wine on the white tablecloth after the players’ performance of the supposed murder of his father.
Lighting also plays an important role in this production, especially during the parts where the ghost appears. At other times, it is an additional tool, which enhances the distance and relationships amongst the characters. With the help of music and the brilliant voice performances of these world-class singers, the production becomes an interesting perspective to the Hamlet legend.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, most of the major characters end up dead. However, in Thomas’ version, the world is brought back to order through Hamlet’s killing of the usurper king, Claudius. He remains alive, and is in the end, celebrated as the new king. Hardly a ‘fall of princes tragedy’, is it? Though, considering the fact that his only love has sacrificed her life for practically no reason at all, it is, nonetheless, still a tragedy in that perspective.
It is not fair to juxtapose all adaptations of a certain work and crucify them for not remaining loyal to the original. As stated in the beginning of this writing, true art should act as a medium of inflicting inspiration. If this had been a stage play, a movie, or even a dramatized audio version, then perhaps it would be fair to condemn a production for diverting too far away from Shakespeare’s original. Yet, in the case of an operatic production, there is much more than just the plot to be observed and ‘heard’. The music should be the main focus, and the vocal performance should be the next important aspect to be judged upon. Nonetheless, any kind of world-class production of Shakespearean plays offers the audience, and scholars, a new perspective on the characters, plot, and themes of the plays.