Six of the best: operas about Roman leaders

We commemorate the Ides of March with a look at six operas based about ancient Roman rulers

Six of the best: operas about Roman leaders
Pietro de Cortone's 1637 painting of Caesar giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt

At a meeting of the senate in the year 44 BC, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death - an event that would eventually lead to the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. This assassination, as any Shakespeare enthusiast will know, took place on the Ides of March - that's the 15th on today's calendar.  

In the centuries since his untimely demise, Julius Caesar – and a host of other Roman leaders and emperors – have featured in great operatic works by the likes of Mozart and Handel among many others. As historical subject matter for opera goes, these Roman figures lives provided music inspiration from the 17th century onwards.

In celebration of the Ides of March (and commiseration of the assassination of Caesar), we name six of the best operas that feature Roman leaders at the centre of their plots.


1. Claudio Monteverdi: L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea)

The first known opera to use a factual historical subject, Monteverdi’s masterpiece tells the story of Poppaea, who was able to manipulate her situation as Nero's mistress to be crowned empress. This opera in three acts was first performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice between 1642-43. Though Monteverdi is noted as the composer for the work, it is a matter of dispute as to whether or not all of the music was written by him. Despite this it remains regarded as his grandest and final operatic piece.


2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Tito)

Though his reign was short lived, Emperor Titus was the perfect subject for an opera commissioned for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II, King of Bohemia. This two-act opera seria was Mozart’s first operatic work to be performed in England and, though it tells the story of Emperor Titus, he is the only historical character in the work. The plot dwells on the noble qualities of the Roman Emperor as he spares the lives of those who try to assassinate him.


3. George Frideric Handel: Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar in Egypt)

Giuiio Cesare is undeniably one of the longest and most elaborate of Handel’s operas and its rich historical subject matter has made it the most revived of his operatic works. The plot centres around Julius Caesar's arrival in Egypt following the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalia in Greece. After the King of Egypt’s assassination of Pompey, Caesar, assisted by Pompey’s family and Cleopatra, seek revenge. This allows good to conquer evil, and peace to return to Egypt.


4. Arrigo Boito: Nerone (Nero)

Composed in four acts, this opera was first premiered in 1924 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Boito (1842-1918) spent approximately 50 years working on this opera, which was both his second and his final operatic work. Alas, the composer passed away before it was completed and this meant that the music had to be finished by several other composers. The opera depicts Ancient Rome during the rule of Nero and highlights the difference in lifestyle between the Romans and the Christians, concluding with the Great Fire of Rome.


5. Detlev Glanert: Caligula

Premiered in 2006, this four-act opera delves into the life of Emperor Caligula and his tyrannous and sadistic reign following the death of his sister, Drusilla. Glanert based his work on a drama by French writer, Albert Camus, and his frantic orchestration is reflective of the mental conditions of Caligula during his rule. The opera combines ideas of mass murder, incest and rape as a way of expressing the madness of the later reigning years of the emperor.


6. Antonio Vivaldi: Ottone in Villa (Otho in the Country)

Emperor Ottone (or Otho, as we know him) features as a protagonist in Vivaldi's 18th-century opera, though his role is more as a lover than a heroic Roman leader. Vivaldi’s first opera, it revolves around the character of Cleonilla, mistress of Ottone. The story is pastoral, following the different romantic excursions of the emperor’s mistress as she fawns for the attention of Caio and Ostillo. In reality, Ostillo is a woman and lover to Caio and the opera concludes with their marriage. 


Maisie Hillier




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