Three Faces of Vengeance: A Close Look at Sesto’s Arias“Svegliatevi nel core” and “Cara speme, questo core”

A simple read through the synopsis of Giulio Cesare (see The Story) reveals a somewhat limited role for Sesto, the son of Pompeo and Cornelia: again and again, he swears to avenge his father’s murder (I/4 and I/8; II/6; III/6). But careful listening reveals that Handel found the desire for vengeance to be a very complex emotion. Evidence can be found in the contrast between Sesto’s two Act I arias, “Svegliatevinel core” (“Awaken in your heart”) and “Cara speme, questo core” (“Dear hope, this heart”).

In the first section of “Svegliatevi nel core,” Handel conveys Sesto’s feelings withmusic of clean, raw passion (Track 23).

The word “furie”—“furies”—is accented for extra bite, and Sesto repeats “svegliatevi” (“awaken”), as he will throughout the section (for example, Track 24). He is determined to muster those furies.

In its middle section, the aria takes a starkly different direction (Track 25).

Aftera pause, Sesto’s words are still of revenge, but now he’s thinking of the father he just lost. With spare accompaniment, the melody is melancholy and slow, as heavy as his heart. Pompeo’s ghost, Sesto continues, is speaking to him (Track 26), and ashe sings its counsel, his voice strengthens (Track 27).

The word “figlio” (“son”) gets particular emphasis, as if Sesto were simultaneously pronouncing and listening to the paternal advice. The desire for vengeance, Handel suggests, is more than blood thirst. It is lined with grief and a powerful connection to the person being avenged.

In “Cara speme, questo core,” Handel proposes a third face of vengeance. Here Cleopatra has just offered Sesto the services of her valet, Nireno, in his mission against Pompeo’s killer, her brother Tolomeo. In Sesto’s reply, Handel conveys both loneliness and, by indirection, the fear that must follow such a vow. From its delicate orchestral introduction into Sesto’s melody, the aria overflows with gratitude, even relief that he will not be alone (Track 28).

This gratitude continues into the aria’s B section, where Handel provides an unexpectedly sympathetic, prayer-like setting for the word “vendicar”—“to revenge” (Track 29).

This is the third aspect of vengeance: the conviction that it may be a lonely and frightening undertaking, but that it is also a just and sacred mission.

With these observations in mind, students might want to listen particularly closely, during the HD transmission, to Sesto’s arias “L’angue offeso mai riposa” in Act II and “La giustizia ha già” in Act III. What other faces of vengeance does Handel present or his character here?

“Svegliatevi nel core” can be heard without interruption on Track 30.

“Cara speme, questo core” can be heard without interruption on Track 31.