Handel’s Serse (Xerxes, 1738)

Handel’s most famous aria

The opera was a commercial failure, despite Handel’s bringing in the famous castrato, Gaetano Majorano (aka Caffarelli). Read about castrati. It lasted only 5 performances, damned because the music was too modern. In the 19th century, however, the opening aria, ‘Ombra mai fu’, was rediscovered and it’s still a favourite piece for countertenor or mezzo, often called Handel’s Largo. Here’s the words.  Compare countertenors Andreas Scholl and Philippe Jaroussky . Here’s Cecilia Bartoli with a real tree. Our production has a mezzo - Paula Rasmussen. Trivia item: this was the first song broadcast on public radio - the Canadian inventor Fessenden transmitted it in 1906.

A different sort of opera

Officially opera buffa, Serse, unlike any other Handel opera, “skillfully blends comic and tragic elements, and consistently disrupts the familiar patterns of the ‘da capo’ aria that had for so long been at the heart of his stage works. Instead, he favours short tuneful arias without ‘da capo’ repeats, woven into brief recitative and ensemble sections, and counterpointed by instrumental
embellishments. The comic element is introduced from the opening aria – Serse’s famous ‘Ombra mai fu’ which has become Handel’s most famous opera tune. The familiarity of the aria might distract listeners today from the absurdity of the situation, as Serse praises the shade provided by a plane tree in the most earnest and ardent terms.” Read more. Incidintally the opera is basically factual.

Gender bending operatic style

Here’s an excerpt from a review of our production. “Serse is more than Handel's so-called "Largo," an aria about a tree! It is the typical Baroque tale of misplaced affections. Serse (Xerxes), the King of Persia, is engaged to Amastre, but he really loves Romilda, the daughter of Ariodate, the commander of Serse's army. Romilda is in love with Arsamene, Serse's brother. Arsamene returns her love, but he in turn is loved Atalanta, Romilda's sister. Serse's and Atalanta's jealousy is the wheel on which the plot revolves. Elviro, Arsamene's tippling manservant, provides comic relief. Confused? The role of Serse originally was sung by
a castrato. As castrati are in short supply these days, Serse is sung by a woman in this production. Arsamene also is sung by a woman, as Handel apparently intended from the start. Furthermore, Amastre spends most of the opera disguised as a man! Things turn out well for everyone in the end… for everyone, that is, except for the tree, which Serse torches near the end of the opera in a fit of rage.”