"Our attendance will depend to some extent on the Super Bowl," Stephen Simon said recently in talking about Handel's great opera, "Julius Caesar," which is to be sung at the Kennedy Center this afternoon starting at 2 p.m.
If you wonder why the music director of the Center's annual Handel festivals has the Super Bowl on his mind, then his simple statement, "I have four sons," may help to explain things. By the time he and I, with my three sons (and one football-aware daughter) had exchanged views on the Dallas Cowboys and the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was easier to see the link between one of Handel's greatest operas and the coming contest between Roger Staubach and Terry Bradshaw.
"This is our third year here with the Handel Festival," Simon said, "and I have always stayed away from Super Bowl Sunday. But this year the Kennedy Center said there was no other date, take it or leave it, and we had to take it." We began to speculate on just how many football fans were also opera enthusiasts who might decide to go hear Handel at 2 and then rush home in time to catch the second, third and last quarters of the game. (Letters on the subject will be welcome.)
Just as there is no question about the stellar quality of the players meeting today in Miami, so there is no question about the caliber of Handel's opera, for which Simon has put together a highly promising cast.
The action takes place in Egypt in 48 B.C., the year Caesar moved into Egypt, ousted Pompey, and won, for a time, the heart of the then-young Cleopatra, who, in that same year, regained the throne of Egypt. The famous queen was 21, Caesar 52. (The modern version of the story is told, if somewhat differently from Handel's version, by George Bernard Shaw.)
In the opera's early scenes, Cleopartra decides to win Caesar over to her side in her struggle with her brother, Ptolemy, for the throne. The scene in which she reaches her most seductive is one for which Handel set up his most beguiling orchestra, one that includes lutes, harp, viola da gamba and mutes on the strings.
Her plans work out better than Cleopatra had foreseen, so that she falls genuinely in love with Caesar, which makes it easy for Handel to write her another gorgeous aria, "Se pieta dime," when she is afraid for the conqueror's life. This scene, in the unusual key of F Sharp Minor, is one of the high points in all opera. But Handel is far from through with his young beauty. Later in the opera, she thinks Caesar has been defeated, while she herself is dragged into Ptolemy's camp in chains. This brings on her most plaintively touching aria, "Piangero la sorte mia."
But Handel was not only the greatest opera composer of his generation; He was also a consummate theater man, engaging some of the finest singers in Europe and then writing irresistible music for them.
With Francesca Cuzzoni and Senesino as the 18th-century equivalents of Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti in his leading roles, and the stupendous Italian bass of his day, Boschi, also in the cast, Handel delighted in following the rules of the day in giving each one of them equal time and attention in the matter of surpassingly beautiful music. No wonder "Giulio Cesare" became the most popular of all his operas.
"For the 'Parnassus' scene," Simon explained, "we are going to put Cleopatra and the special orchestra (the one with harp, lutes and so on) up in the front box, stage left. It is, after all, a scene in which Caesar raises his eyes and sees this vision of beauty." The scene becomes the occasion for the lovers' first duet.
Any time Handel opera comes up there are the inevitable questions about ornamentation and what voices to use in place of the castrati for whom Handel regularly wrote.
"The role of Caesar was written for a castrato," Simon pointed out, "but today it is always sung by a baritone. Audiences expect a masculine sound for Caesar." (Especially on Super Bowl Sunday, I thought.) "I think Morley Meredith is ideal for the part, probably the finest singer for Caesar you could find anywhere today."
Don't expect any consistency, however, in this matter of what sex is going to sing the masculine roles that used to be sung by women or castrati. For instance, the role of Sextus, Pompey's young son, is usually sung by a mezzo, as it will be this afternoon by Huguette Tourangeau. This decision is generally explained on the grounds of the boy's youth, as in the case of Mozart's Cherubino in "The Marriage of Figaro."
Simon has some positive ideas about why Handel's "Messiah" continues to draw full houses year after year, regardless of the time of year, while many people who would not miss their annual "Messiah" do not rush to buy tickets for the other Handel oratorios and operas, even though these are often the equal of, and in some cases actually superior to, the world's most beloved oratorio.
"'Messiah' is atypical Handel," Simon said, "having fewer of the Italianate characteristics you find in so much of his other writing, though to be sure 'Rejoice greatly' is straight out of Italian opera." Handel's large fortune was made equally in opera and oratorio, the latter moving in when John Gay and "The Beggar's Opera" made it hard for foreign-language opera to hold its own in London for a while.
"But Handel knew and hired the best opera singers in Europe for his operas," Simon added, and it is to the world of opera that Simon went to cast this afternoon's "Caesar." In addition to Meredith and Tourangeau, the cast will be headed by Elaine Malbin as Cleopatra -- television watchers will remember her from many NBC-TV opera productions -- Beverly Wolff as Cornelia, Gene Hill as Ptolemy, Dominic Cossa as Achillas, Jan Opalach as Curio and Kimball Wheeler as Nirenus.
"And remember," Simon concluded, "we have had to cut nearly five hours of opera down to around three. For some of the transitions, and for the essential harpsichord role, with its improvisations, there is no one in the world like Martin Isepp, who will be playing for us."
When I suggested that I might have a portable TV set in my pocket at the performance, Simon grinned. "Would you let me know during the intermission how it is going?" Sorry, today's intermission will be over well before kickoff time.