Sending the Wrong Message: A Close Look at the Recitative "La reggia Tolomeo t'offre in albergo"

Texts and translations for the following tracks can be found here.

If the da capo form (see Classroom Activity) provides the bone and muscle of Baroque opera, its sinews are the sections known as secco recitatives. These are scenes of interaction among two or more characters that drive the story forward (as opposed to the contemplative nature of the arias). The orchestral accompanimentis sparse, usually consisting of a harpsichord, a cello, bass, and/or bassoon, and atheorbo (a form of lute). The vocal lines are much simpler than in the arias and closer to the pattern of speech. (The Italian “recitativo secco” comes from “recitare,” orrecite, and “secco,” or dry.)

Explaining his approach to staging Handel, David McVicar, director of this production, has said, “If you tackle the secco recitatives in Handel operas with convictionand a willingness to explore the emotional depths of each moment, you find that these operas are far from static. You find that they communicate as naturally as human beings do in life.”

A scene that offers a great opportunity to examine this kind of natural communication, with the full array of Baroque voice types interacting with each other, occursright at the beginning of Giulio Cesare. In Act I, Scene 3, Cesare has just arrived in Egypt, hunting down Pompeo. The Egyptian king, Tolomeo, sends the commanderof his army, Achilla, with a gift for the honored guest. In Track 21, Achilla arrives atthe lodgings of Cesare. A simple harpsichord announces his entrance. In a grand, formal, and generous tone, Achilla (sung by a baritone) conveys his monarch’s wish that Cesare move to the royal palace. He enhances the invitation with what he understands to be a gesture of esteem—delivering the “proud head of Pompeo” to Cesare.

The reaction is not the expected one (Track 22). Pompeo’s now-widow Cornelia (mezzo-soprano) screams. Cesare (countertenor) says to himself, “Giulio, chemiri?”—“Julius, what are you looking at?” Sesto (mezzo-soprano in a trouser role) looks at the bloody head of his late father and wails, “Che veggio?”—“What do I see?”

When Cesare declares that the only decent response is to cremate the head, storing Pompeo’s ashes in a fine urn, Achilla realizes this visit has not gone as planned. “Oh dei!” he exclaims—“Oh gods!” Notice the way Handel sets Achilla’s exclamation, on two notes. Like all the other music in this recitative, they faithfully capture the tones of real, human speech.

This raises a point that students may never have considered: all speech is a kind of singing. You can demonstrate this real-life secco recitative with a fun experiment:
Have a student say a sentence or two, then invite another student to repeat the same sounds without pronouncing the words. (Old Charlie Brown cartoons use this effect brilliantly whenever grownups speak off-screen.) Now invite two students to have a conversation using only musical tones, not words. Can they understand each other? Does the rest of the class understand?