Serse (Xerxes)
  • George Frideric Handel. Opera in three acts. 1738.
  • Libretto adapted from Silvio Stampiglia’s Il Xerse.
  • First performance at the King’s Theatre, London, on 15th April 1738.
CHARACTERS

Serse (Xerxes), King of Persia

male mezzo-soprano

Arsamene, his brother

mezzo-soprano

Amastre, betrothed to Serse

contralto

Ariodate, a vassal prince

bass

Romilda, his daughter

soprano

Atalanta, her sister

soprano

Elviro, servant to Arsamene

bass

Xerxes sings in praise of a tree’s shade, while the voice of Romilda is heard. She is loved by Arsamene, but Xerxes resolves to marry her, to the relief of Atalanta, who also loves Arsamene, while Amastre, disguised as a man and deserted by Xerxes, looks for revenge. Atalanta’s pretence that Arsamene really loves her and the insistence of Xerxes on marrying Romilda cause a series of complications, enlivened by the comic servant Elviro. Eventually matters are put right, with Xerxes united again with Amastre and Arsamene with Romilda.

Handel’s opera has a mixture of the serious and the comic. It opens with one of the most celebrated of arias, as Xerxes praises the shade of a plane tree, Ombra mai fù (Shade there never was), known, in arrangement after arrangement, as Handel’s ‘Largo’. The work was a marked failure when it was first staged in London and was given only five performances. The resurrection of the so-called ‘Largo’ was left to the 19th century.