Last updated

Autograph of Tolomeo, 1728 Handel-Tolomeo-Autograph.png
Autograph of Tolomeo, 1728

Tolomeo, re d'Egitto ("Ptolemy, King of Egypt", HWV 25) is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel to an Italian text by Nicola Francesco Haym, adapted from Carlo Sigismondo Capece's Tolomeo et Alessandro. It was Handel's 13th (or 14th if the one act Handel contributed to the collaborative opera Muzio Scevola is counted) and last opera for the Royal Academy of Music (1719) and was also the last of the operas he composed for the triumvirate of internationally renowned singers, the castrato Senesino and the sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni.


The story of the opera is a fictionalisation of some events in the life of Ptolemy IX Lathyros, king of Egypt.

An aria from the opera, Non lo dirò col labbro, was adapted by Arthur Somervell (1863–1937) as the popular English-language classic "Silent Worship" in 1928.

Performance history

Tolomeo was first performed at the King's Theatre, London on 30 April 1728 and received seven performances. It was revived with revisions on 19 May 1730 and 2 January 1733, [1] a mark of the work's popularity. The first production of modern times was conducted by Fritz Lehmann at Göttingen on 19 June 1938. As with all Baroque opera seria, Tolomeo went unperformed for many years, but with the revival of interest in Baroque music and historically informed musical performance since the 1960s,Tolomeo, like all Handel operas, receives performances at festivals and opera houses today. [2] Among other productions, Tolomeo was performed at the Handel Festival in Halle in 1996, [3] by English Touring Opera in 2006, [4] [5] and by Glimmerglass Opera in 2010. [6]


Caricature of Senesino, who created the role of Tolomeo Zanetti senesino.jpg
Caricature of Senesino, who created the role of Tolomeo
Roles, voice types, and premiere cast
Role [1] Voice typePremiere Cast, 30 April 1728
Tolomeo, former ruler of Egypt alto castrato Francesco Bernardi, called "Senesino"
Seleuce, wife of Tolomeo soprano Francesca Cuzzoni
Elisa, sister of Araspesoprano Faustina Bordoni
Alessandro, brother of Tolomeoalto castratoAntonio Baldi
Araspe, King of Cyprus bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi


Ptolemy IX PtolemyIX-StatueHead MuseumOfFineArtsBoston.png
Ptolemy IX
Place: Cyprus
Time: around 108 BC,

The action takes place at the time of Ptolemy IX (Tolomeo), who was deposed by his mother and joint ruler of Egypt Cleopatra III in favour of his younger brother Ptolemy X (Alessandro). Its themes include revenge, lust, lost love, devotion, and eventually, reconciliation.

Act 1

The action opens with Tolomeo on the beach of Cyprus, where he meets his shipwrecked brother, Alessandro. Alessandro has come under orders from Cleopatra to kill his own flesh and blood. Tolomeo becomes aware of Alessandro's identity and is tempted to kill him, but can't bring himself to do so. Tolomeo (going under the name of Osmin to protect himself from the wrath of King Araspe, an ally of Cleopatra) hides, and Elisa, sister of the king, turns up. Alessandro wakes, thinks she is like a goddess, and declares his love for her. She, however, loves "Osmin." She is very flirtatious. But as she and "Osmin" talk, it becomes clear that her feelings are not requited, that Tolomeo loves another (Seleuce, his wife, who he thinks is lost). Alone, he considers taking his own life.

We are then introduced to Seleuce who is also going under an alias, "Delia." She sings of her dispossession, then sees Tolomeo on the shore, but she runs away when Araspe arrives. Araspe is furious at Seleuce, whom he pursues with amorous intent. Act One closes with Tolomeo visualising his wife, wishing that she could appear before him and ease his pain.

Act 2

Tolomeo loses his temper and declares to Elisa that he is not "Osmin" but is indeed the deposed joint ruler of Egypt. Elisa tells the resentful Araspe to bring "Delia" before them. This is done and Tolomeo rapturously declares his love to Seleuce. She, in order to protect Tolomeo, pretends she doesn't know what he is talking about, while in typical operatic fashion voicing her inner thoughts in parentheses; how this deception is painful to her and she longs for her husband.

Tolomeo reiterates that he cannot love Elisa and she rages at this. Tolomeo leaves and Alessandro enters, reiterating his love for Elisa. Elisa claims that the only way she can love him in return is if he murders his brother. Seleuce sings another lament and Tolomeo echoes her words in the background. Araspe bursts onto the scene and tries to rape Seleuce. Tolomeo can't bear the sight and rushes to defend his wife. He reveals their true identities, and Araspe sings ruggedly of how he will punish the lovers. The couple are left alone at the end of act two and touchingly sing synchronised for the first time of how their love for one another will doom them both.

Act 3

Francesca Cuzzoni, who created the role of Seleuce Portrait of soprano Susannah Maria Cibber.jpg
Francesca Cuzzoni, who created the role of Seleuce

Alessandro has a letter positing the death of Cleopatra. He says she has paid the price for her cruelty. Somehow Araspe interprets Alessandro saying he wants to go home to Egypt with Tolomeo as meaning he wants his brother slain, but wants someone else to do it. Araspe, of course, thinks himself the very man for the job and delights in avenging the jealousy he feels.

Elisa forces Seleuce to cede Tolomeo to her, saying he'll die otherwise. Tolomeo rejects Elisa once more. She says if he is so brave and intent on rejecting her, then he should drink some poison. This he does. He describes the effect the poison is having, and then, apparently, dies. Alessandro comes to the desperate Seleuce in the remotest part of the wood and promises to reunite her with Tolomeo. Araspe triumphantly reveals the body of Tolomeo to Alessandro. He is sure that Seleuce is his but Elisa reveals the potion was actually a sleeping draught and she will torture Seleuce and put her to death. At this point Tolomeo wakes up and Alessandro presents Seleuce to him. Husband and wife are reunited and Alessandro declares Tolomeo as Egypt's rightful ruler. The opera ends with a joyous quartet expounding that when suffering turns into joy, all can be forgiven. [7]

Context and analysis

The King's Theatre, London, where Tolomeo had its first performance London Kings Theatre Haymarket.jpg
The King's Theatre, London, where Tolomeo had its first performance

The German-born Handel, after spending some of his early career composing operas and other pieces in Italy, settled in London. Therein, in 1711, Handel composed the first opera specifically-written for the London stage, Rinaldo . A tremendous success, Rinaldo intensified in London the enthusiasm for Italian opera seria, a form that focused overwhelmingly on solo arias for the star virtuoso singers. In 1719, Handel was appointed music director of an organisation called the Royal Academy of Music (unconnected with the present day London conservatoire), a company under royal charter to produce Italian operas in London. Handel was not only to compose operas for the company but hire the star singers, supervise the orchestra and musicians, and adapt operas from Italy for London performance. [8] [9]

Handel had composed numerous Italian operas for the Academy, with varying degrees of success; some were enormously popular. The castrato Senesino and the soprano Francesca Cuzzoni had appeared in a succession of Handel operas for the Academy (he was not the only composer who composed operas for the company) most of which had been successful with audiences, and in 1726 the directors of the Academy brought over another internationally renowned singer, Faustina Bordoni, to add to the company's attractions. The two prima donnas had appeared in continental European countries in operas together without incident, but in London they developed rival groups of fans that interrupted the performances with rowdy displays of partisanship for one lady or another. This came to a climax on 6 June 1727 during a performance at the King's Theatre of Astianatte by Giovanni Bononcini with both singers onstage and royalty in the audience. Fist fights and disorder between rival groups of fans broke out in the audience and the two sopranos exchanged insults and came to blows onstage. The rest of the opera was cut, the performers going straight to the short final chorus, and the scandal was gleefully repeated in the newspapers, in satirical skits on other stages, and in mock-heroic verse, bringing the entire form of Italian opera into a certain amount of disrepute in London. [7]

Faustina Bordoni, who created the role of Elisa Ca' Rezzonico Sala dei pastelli - Ritratto di Faustina Bordoni Hasse - Rosalba Carriera - 47x35.jpg
Faustina Bordoni, who created the role of Elisa

Handel continued to supply operas for the trio of star singers, Senesino, Cuzzoni and Faustina (as she was known) however, even though these singers received astronomical fees, much more than he received for composing the works, [10] which combined with declining audience numbers caused at least in part by the ridicule brought upon Italian opera by the rival sopranos' public spat, was causing severe financial difficulty for the Royal Academy of Music.

After the 1728 season closed, the Royal Academy of Music was dissolved, but Handel went into partnership with John James Heidegger, the theatrical impresario who held the lease on the King's Theatre in the Haymarket where the operas were presented, and Handel set out to Italy to find singers for his 1729 season, Cuzzoni, Senesino and Faustina having all left London for engagements on the continent of Europe. [7]

Handel found a new prima donna, Anna Strada, for his 1729 season. One of Handel's librettists, Paolo Rolli, wrote in a letter (the original is in Italian) that Handel said that Strada "sings better than the two who have left us, because one of them (Faustina) never pleased him at all and he would like to forget the other (Cuzzoni). [11]

The aria for Alessandro in the opera, No.3 in the score, '' Non lo dirò col labbro", with an English text as "Silent Worship", is featured in the 1996 film adaptation of Jane Austen's novel Emma . [12] Although Somervell's English translation was done more than a century after Austen's novel, the original Italian aria was recorded in Jane Austen's own handwritten songbooks. [13] [14]

The opera is scored for two recorders, flute, two oboes, bassoon, two horns, strings, and continuo (cello, lute, harpsichord).


Tolomeo discography
Tolomeo, Seleuce,
Elisa, Alessandro,
Label [15]
1995Jennifer Lane,
Brenda Harris,
Andrea Matthews,
Mary Ann Hart,
Peter Castaldi
Richard Auldon Clark
Manhattan Chamber Orchestra
Cat:3 7530
2006 Ann Hallenberg,
Karina Gauvin,
Anna Bonitatibus,
Romina Basso,
Pietro Spagnoli
Alan Curtis
Il Complesso Barocco
CD:DG Archiv,
Cat:477 710-6

Related Research Articles

<i>Giulio Cesare</i> Opera by George Frederic Handel

Giulio Cesare in Egitto ; pronounced[ˈdʒuːljoˈtʃeːzareineˈdʒitto,-ˈtʃɛː-]; HWV 17), commonly known as Giulio Cesare, is a dramma per musica in three acts composed by George Frideric Handel for the Royal Academy of Music in 1724. The libretto was written by Nicola Francesco Haym who used an earlier libretto by Giacomo Francesco Bussani, which had been set to music by Antonio Sartorio (1676). The opera was a success at its first performances, was frequently revived by Handel in his subsequent opera seasons and is now one of the most often performed Baroque operas.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Francesca Cuzzoni</span> Italian operatic soprano

Francesca Cuzzoni was an Italian operatic soprano of the Baroque era.

<i>Flavio</i> Opera in three acts by Handel

Flavio, re de' Longobardi is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. The Italian-language libretto was by Nicola Francesco Haym, after Matteo Noris's Flavio Cuniberto. It was Handel's fourth full-length opera for the Royal Academy of Music. Handel had originally entitled the opera after the character of Emilia in the opera.

<i>Radamisto</i> (Handel) Opera by George Frideric Handel

Radamisto is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel to an Italian libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, based on L'amor tirannico, o Zenobia by Domenico Lalli and Zenobia by Matteo Noris. It was Handel's first opera for the Royal Academy of Music. The opera's plot is loosely based on incidents from Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome.

<i>Alessandro</i> (opera)

Alessandro, is an opera composed by George Frideric Handel in 1726 for the Royal Academy of Music. Paolo Rolli's libretto is based on the story of Ortensio Mauro's La superbia d'Alessandro. This was the first time the famous singers Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni appeared together in one of Handel's operas. The original cast also included Francesco Bernardi who was known as Senesino.

<i>Riccardo Primo</i>

Riccardo primo, re d'Inghilterra is an opera seria in three acts written by George Frideric Handel for the Royal Academy of Music (1719). The Italian-language libretto was by Paolo Antonio Rolli, after Francesco Briani's Isacio tiranno, set by Antonio Lotti in 1710. Handel wrote the work for the Royal Academy's 1726–27 opera season, and also as homage to the newly crowned George II and the nation where Handel had just received citizenship.

<i>Scipione</i> 1726 opera by George Frideric Handel

Scipione, also called Publio Cornelio Scipione, is an opera seria in three acts, with music composed by George Frideric Handel for the Royal Academy of Music in 1726. The librettist was Paolo Antonio Rolli. Handel composed Scipione whilst in the middle of writing Alessandro. It is based on the life of the Roman general Scipio Africanus. Its slow march is the regimental march of the Grenadier Guards and is known for being played at London Metropolitan Police passing out ceremonies.

<i>Orlando</i> (opera) Opera by Georg Friedrich Händel

Orlando is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel written for the King's Theatre in London in 1733. The Italian libretto was adapted from Carlo Sigismondo Capece's L'Orlando after Ludovico Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, which was also the source of Handel's operas Alcina and Ariodante. More an artistic than a popular success at its first performances, Orlando is today recognised as a masterpiece.

<i>Berenice</i> (opera)

Berenice is an opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel to a 1709 Antonio Salvi libretto, Berenice, regina d'Egitto, or Berenice, Queen of Egypt. Handel began the music in December 1736; the premiere took place at Covent Garden Theatre in London on 18 May 1737 — but was unsuccessful, with just three further performances. Set circa 81 B.C., Berenice traces the life of Berenice III of Egypt, daughter of Ptolemy IX, the main character in another Handel opera, Tolomeo.


Ottone, re di Germania is an opera by George Frideric Handel, to an Italian–language libretto adapted by Nicola Francesco Haym from the libretto by Stefano Benedetto Pallavicino for Antonio Lotti's opera Teofane. It was the first new opera written for the Royal Academy of Music (1719)'s fourth season and had its first performance on 12 January 1723 at the King's Theatre, Haymarket in London. Handel had assembled a cast of operatic superstars for this season and the opera became an enormous success.


Siroe, re di Persia, is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. It was his 12th opera for the Royal Academy of Music and was written for the sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni. The opera uses an Italian-language libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, after Metastasio's Siroe. Like many of Metastasio's libretti, it was also set by Handel's contemporaries, e.g. by Leonardo Vinci, Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Adolph Hasse. Pasquale Errichelli's setting of the libretto premiered in the year of Handel's death.

<i>Poro</i> (opera) Opera by Georg Friedrich Händel

Poro, re dell'Indie is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. The Italian-language libretto was adapted from Alessandro nell'Indie by Metastasio, and based on Alexander the Great's encounter with Porus in 326 BC. The libretto had already been set to music by Leonardo Vinci in 1729 and was used as the text for more than sixty operas throughout the 18th century.


Floridante is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. The Italian-language libretto was by Paolo Antonio Rolli after Francesco Silvani's libretto for Marc'Antonio Ziani dramma per musica La costanza in trionfo of 1696.

<i>Arianna in Creta</i>

Arianna in Creta is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. The Italian-language libretto was adapted by Francis Colman from Pietro Pariati's Arianna e Teseo, a text previously set by Nicola Porpora in 1727 and Leonardo Leo in 1729.


Lotario is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. The Italian-language libretto was adapted from Antonio Salvi's Adelaide.The opera was first given at the King's Theatre in London on 2 December 1729.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Faustina Bordoni</span> Italian opera singer (1697–1781)

Faustina Bordoni was an Italian mezzo-soprano.

<i>Ezio</i> (Handel)

Ezio is an opera seria by George Frideric Handel to a libretto by Metastasio. Metastasio's libretto was partly inspired by Jean Racine's play Britannicus. The same libretto had already been set by many other composers, first of all Nicola Porpora who managed to preempt the official Rome premiere of Pietro Auletta's setting for 26 December 1728 with his own version for Venice on 20 November, a month earlier. The libretto continued to be set and reset for another 50 years, including two versions of Ezio by Gluck. Handel's Ezio is considered one of the purest examples of opera seria with its absence of vocal ensembles.

Francesca Bertolli was an Italian contralto of the 18th century. She is best remembered for her association with the composer George Frideric Handel, in whose operas she sang.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Royal Academy of Music (company)</span> Company founded to support the performance of operas by Händel in London

The Royal Academy of Music was a company founded in February 1719, during George Frideric Handel's residence at Cannons, by a group of aristocrats to secure themselves a constant supply of opera seria. It is not connected to the London conservatoire with the same name, which was founded in 1822.

<i>Admeto</i> Opera by George Frideric Handel

Admeto, re di Tessaglia is a three-act opera written for the Royal Academy of Music with music composed by George Frideric Handel to an Italian-language libretto prepared by Nicola Francesco Haym. The story is partly based on Euripides' Alcestis. The opera's first performance was at the Haymarket Theatre in London on 31 January 1727. The original cast included Faustina Bordoni as Alcestis and Francesca Cuzzoni as Antigona, as Admeto was the second of the five operas that Handel composed to feature specifically these two prime donne of the day.



  1. 1 2 "G. F. Handel's Compositions". GF Retrieved 29 December 2016.
  2. "Handel:A Biographical Introduction". GF Retrieved 28 December 2016.
  3. Cover view of recording Archived 2010-11-23 at the Wayback Machine
  4. Robert Hugill, "Simple But Effective", review of the production on Music & Vision (, 20 May 2006 Retrieved 1 September 2010
  5. English Touring Opera's website with details of the production Retrieved 1 September 2010
  6. Loomis, George. "Directorial excess sabotages "Tolomeo" premiere at Glimmerglass". The Classical Review. Retrieved 30 June 2014.
  7. 1 2 3 "Tolomeo". Retrieved 29 December 2016.
  8. Dean, W. & J.M. Knapp (1995) Handel's operas 1704-1726, p. 298.
  9. Strohm, Reinhard (20 June 1985). Essays on Handel and Italian opera by Reinhard Strohm. ISBN   9780521264280 . Retrieved 2 February 2013 via Google Books.
  10. Snowman, Daniel (2010). The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera. Atlantic Books. ISBN   978-1843544661.
  11. "Lotario". Retrieved 29 December 2016.
  12. "Silent Worship" Archived 2010-10-31 at the Wayback Machine from the 1996 film Emma (audio)
  13. Emma: Non-soundtrack Music Notes from site on Emma adaptations
  14. Jane's Hand: The Jane Austen Songbooks (CD and MP3)
  15. "Recordings of Tolomeo". Retrieved 30 June 2014.