George Frederic Handel, New Age Sensitive Man.

Think the moniker doesn’t fit? Then clearly you don’t know his opera Giulio Cesare, which is how the German-born, English-speaking composer spelled the name of Julius Caesar.

In his opera, which first appeared in 1724 to massive international acclaim, Handel captures in all her wily complexity and sensuality the great Cleopatra, with the sensitivity that one typically does not associate with early 18th century males.

“He understood women,” says Susanna Phillips, who will appear as Cleopatra in Boston Baroque’s performances at Boston’s Jordan Hall on Friday, April 21st, and Sunday, April 23rd.

“He understood Cleopatra as a woman in love and as a political figure. It’s amazing how deeply he grasps the complexity of her personality.”

It’s easy to make the case that a given piece of music was unsuccessful in its day and only found a meaningful audience after the composer had passed on.

Such was emphatically not the case with Handel, whose Giulio Cesare was a huge hit from the first performance.

The opera quickly found success on the continent as well, in both France and Germany. It made its way to the United States in the early part of the 20th century, with a break-out moment for the great Beverly Sills, who performed the role in 1966 with the New York City Opera, back when most people associated Caesar with Shakespeare or salads, but not Handel.

The performance runs three hours, and soprano Phillips notes that early 18th century audiences didn’t sit quietly in performances, as we do today.

“They bought dinner,” Phillips says. “They would sit and eat and talk, and occasionally pay attention to the music. You could say it was the original dinner theater.”

Today, music-goers typically eat first and sit and listen politely. It’s just as well, because the arias Handel wrote for Cleopatra are, in and of themselves, worth the price of admission. In Paris, those arias remained extremely popular with singers and audiences even though the opera itself was not performed.

Boston Baroque, founded by its first and only music director, Martin Pearlman, is renowned for its use of period instruments and performances rooted in the styles of the composers’ eras. For Phillips, the role is something of a departure from her most recent role at the Metropolitan Opera, where she sang the role of Clemence in L’amour de Loin, a new piece from the Finnish composer, Kaija Saariaho.

“The two operas have more in common than you might think,” Phillips says about Giulio Cesare and L’amour de Loin. “Both are love stories, and Saariaho’s composing is deeply rooted in the European tradition that in many ways dates back to Handel.”

It’s funny how things come full circle – for her work at the Met, Phillips received the Beverly Sills Award, named, obviously, for the great soprano who once played Cleopatra, the role Phillips will perform as for the first time this week.

Giulio Cesare is performed frequently here in the United States, but is somewhat of a rarity in Boston. Get your tickets early, but do eat first.

When it comes to reconstructing the actual performance experience of the 1720s, even Boston Baroque only goes so far.

Susanna Phillips.
Susanna Phillips.


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