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.
Here, then, are six of the best operas with Roman leaders at the centre of their plots:
1. Claudio Monteverdi: L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea)
The first known opera to be based on a factual historical subject (as opposed to mythology), Monteverdi’s masterpiece tells the story of Poppaea, who was able to manipulate her position as the mistress of Nero (emperor, 54-68) to be crowned empress. If anything, Monteverdi tones history down a little – while Poppaea comes across as a nasty piece of work in the opera, by all accounts she was far worse in real life (as was, of course, Nero himself). 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.
2. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus)
Though his reign was short lived, Titus (emperor, 79-81) was the perfect subject for this 1791 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. The real Titus did, in fact, avoid being bumped off, dying instead of natural causes – quite a rarity in early Roman imperial days.
3. George Frideric Handel: Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt)
Giuiio Cesare (premiered 1724) 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 stage works. The plot centres around the arrival of Julius Caesar (dictator, 49-44BC) in Egypt following the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalia in Greece. On learning of the assassination of Pompey by Ptolemy, King of Egypt, Caesar is disgusted and, assisted by Pompey’s family and Cleopatra, seeks revenge. Though there are plenty of twists and turns along the way, eventually good overcomes evil and the odious Ptolemy meets his come-uppance. Much of the opera, though, is really about the growing infatuation of its title character with the ultra-seductive Cleopatra.
4. Arrigo Boito: Nerone (Nero)
Nerone was premiered in 1924 at Teatro alla Scala, Milan. Boito (1842-1918) spent approximately 50 years working on the opera, which was both his second and his final operatic work – alas, he died before it was completed and the music had to be completed by several other composers. The plot depicts Ancient Rome during the rule of Nero and highlights the difference in lifestyle between the Romans (debauched) and the Christians (noble) and ends with the Great Fire of Rome.
5. Detlev Glanert: Caligula
Premiered in 2006, this four-act opera delves into the life of Caligula (emperor, 37-41) 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 final years of an emperor who, early in his reign, had actually been remarkably liberal and benign as a ruler.
6. Antonio Vivaldi: Ottone in Villa (Otho in the Country)
Ottone (Otho, emperor, 69) 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. It turns out that Ostillo is a woman and lover to Caio and the opera concludes with their marriage. The real-life Otho, meanwhile, did not enjoy a happy time as emperor, ruling for just three months during which he faced a major rebellion and then committing suicide.