Oftentimes an eminent masterpiece is hardly appreciated by its contemporaries and only subsequently, for some strange reason, praises and lauds become as copious as fashionable… Such is certainly the case of George Frideric Handel’s “Serse”. In spite of Handel’s first public presentation of his Italian opera “Rinaldo” in London, which was an extraordinary triumph, Xerxes did not receive the same critic and was definitely a theatrical fiasco. Maybe because of its lame plot: the unfruitful attempts of the Persian King Xerxes to win the heart of the beautiful Romilda: or maybe due to its tragicomic melange considered inappropriate by the connoisseurs and unintelligible to the audience; or maybe because of a bad Xerses interpretation by the soprano castrato – albeit I find it hardly to believe, being him the highly celebrated Gaetano Majorano (known as the great Caffarelli), student of the famous Neapolitan maestro Nicola Porpora. However Serse’s prima took place in April 1738 at the King’s Theatre in Haymarket, London, but was discontinued soon afterwards (just four replica) and has been almost neglected ever since. Only in occasion of the 300th anniversary of Handel’s birth (1985) it was retrieved by the English National Opera and finally gained its deserved success becoming one of the most fortunate Baroque operas of our days.
Georg Friedrich Händel improved his composition skillfulness in Italy thus adopting all the Italian opera canons, and in fact Serse was based on an Italian anonymous libretto. Nicolò Minato had previously worked on it for Francesco Cavalli in 1654 and then it was adapted from Sivlio Stampiglia’s libretto for Bononcini’s opera of 1694; later translated into English by Nicholas Hytner. The story is quite simple and the setting followed the typical baroque passion for the oriental dreamland which was a infallible court entertainment, as the introduction to the libretto admonishes:
“Some imbecilities, and the temerity of Xerxes (such as his being deeply enamour’d with a plane tree, and the building a bridge over the Hellespont to unite Asia to Europe) are the basis of the story. The rest is fiction.”
The young king of Persia, Serse is already engaged to Amastris, but unfortunately he has fallen in love with Romilda, one of his generals’ daughter Ariodate. In spite of this sentiment Romilda, in turn loves Arsamene Serses’ brother. Atalanta, Romilda’s sister is also in love with Arsamene. Amastris is not abated, masked as a man she will try the impossible to prevent Serse to desert her. When Serse realises that his own brother is an obstacle to his happiness, he arranges for him to be exiled and proposes to Romilda. Romilda tells Xerxes that she cannot marry him until she gets her father’s consent. Thus when Ariodate comes back from the war Xerxes is ready to announce his wedding to Romilda. However Amastris, disguised as captain of Ariodate’s army, informs Arsamene of Serses betrayal and of his plan of marrying Romilda. Therefore when Serse meets Amastris outside of Ariodate’s residence – he does not recognize her as she is wearing her warfare uniform – he commands her to take the guard in front of Ariodate’s house. Thus at sunset, when he in disguise tries to approach Romilda, she will not allow him to enter. Serse fakes being a courier of the king to announce to Ariodate the impending arrival of the royal bridegroom. Romilda rapidly and wittily organises that Arsamene will present himself before her father as the bridegroom. So when Serse will reach and try to ask Ariodate for Romilda’s hand, the wedding ceremony has already taken place. Finally, though, Serse defeated by the shrewd machination will affably accept this sudden twist and go back to Amastris who will become his queen.
The opera has gained more and more followers thanks to the opening aria “Ombra mai fu”, sung by Serse under a tree “Never was a shade”. This indescribably suave short aria also known as Handel’s “Largo“, is preceded by an opening recitativo and contains in his rather brief rimes and yet powerful celestial notes an endless stream of peaceful emotions. In 1700 the aria was intended to be sung by a soprano castrato, nowadays this Largo is usually performed by mezzo soprano or controtenore. Among all the interpretations (Yoshikazu Mera, Ann Murray, Renée Fleming, Jennifer Larmore…), the one which is unquestionably the dearest to me is performed by Andreas Scholl, the witty greatest German countertenor.
Enjoy his heavenly voice:
Frondi tenere e belle
Del mio Platano amato,
Per voi risplenda il Fato
Tuoni, Lampi, e Procelle
Non vi oltraggino mai la cara pace,
Nè giunga a profanarvi Austro rapace.
Ombra mai fu
Care ed amabile
Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
Let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never bother your dear peace,
Nor may you be profaned by blowing winds.
shade of a plant,
dear and loving,
or more gentle.]