Xerxes, or Serse, to give it the Italian title, wasn't well received in 1738, but Handel's enduring Largo aria has touched many hearts since then and will again this coming Wednesday, June 21st (6-9pm) as the Britsburgh Performing Arts Society explores "An Evening with Handel's opera - Xerxes"
Come listen to select Xerxes arias performed by Pittsburgh Festival Opera, participate in a discussion, meet the director and cast. Enjoy a lovely evening with food and drink. Get tickets ($10 in advance; $20 on the door; Free to Britsburgh Society members): http://bit.ly/BritsburghAEWxerxes
Unexpectedly, Handel's opera, based on the story of Xerxes I of Persia, didn't go down too well in 18th Century England. Caught between the straight-faced drama of an opera seria, and the comic opera buffa style, it disappeared from the stage after a mere five performances at the King's Theatre in London.
But Handel fans shouldn't write this opera off just yet. The opening aria, known as Ombra mai fu, is an operatic favourite thanks to its beautiful plaintive melody. It's one of opera's more unusual love songs, performed by Xerxes as he admires the shade of a plane tree. It's known as Handel's Largo, despite being marked larghetto in the score.
Sadly, other than a few well-loved arias, Handel's operas aren't as popular as his other works. Xerxes was his 35th foray into the genre, following other more successful works including Il pastor fido from 1712, Giulio Cesare from 1724, and Alcina in 1735.
Xerxes, King of Persia - Andrey Nemzer
Arsamene, His brother - Daniel Moody
Amastre, Xerxes' fiancée - Emily Harmon
Romilda, Arsamene's fiancée - Lara Lynn McGill
Music - George Frideric Handel
Libretto - Giovanni Bononcini
English Translation - Stephen Wadsworth
Director - Daniel Ragazzi
Conductor - Walter Morales
The action takes place in Abydos, on the southern shore of the Hellespont.
A magnificent garden with a plane tree and a summerhouse. The Persian king Xerxes (Serse) pays affectionate tribute to the tree. As he admires it his brother Arsamene, accompanied by his servant Elviro, comes in search of his beloved Romilda. They stop at the sound of music, and Romilda, from the summerhouse, sings of Xerxes’ infatuation with the tree. Aroused by the sound of his own name Xerxes asks Arsamene about the singer: he wants her as part of his harem or, failing that, as his wife. Arsamene is horrified, but is determined that Xerxes shall not have her.
Arsamene warns Romilda of Xerxes’ intentions, thereby giving hope to Romilda’s sister Atalanta, who is secretly in love with Arsamene. Though Romilda reassures Arsamene that she will be true to him, he remains anxious, and when Xerxes comes to tell Romilda that he wants her as his queen Arsamene steps forward to intervene, and is banished from the court. Xerxes tries, unsuccessfully, to convince Romilda of his love; she is determined not to betray her love for Arsamene.
In a courtyard outside the palace Amastre, a princess promised in marriage to Xerxes, arrives disguised as a man. Xerxes’ victorious army now returns from war against the Mauri, led by Xerxes’ general Ariodate, father of Romilda and Atalanta. Xerxes congratulates Ariodate and promises him, as a reward, that his daughter Romilda shall have a royal husband, ‘equal in status to Xerxes’. Ariodate is delighted. Xerxes muses on his love for Romilda, and how Amastre and her father will react to the news that he is taking a vassal as a wife. Amastre, incensed at what she hears, nearly gives herself away.
Arsamene gives a letter to Elviro to deliver to Romilda, in which he promises to visit her secretly. Amastre, alone, determines furiously to have her revenge on Xerxes. Atalanta taunts her sister, telling her that Arsamene loves another woman, but Romilda is not fooled. Atalanta realises that she will need to employ her full repertoire of coquetry to secure Arsamene for herself.
A public square. Elviro has disguised himself as a flower-seller to convey the letter to Romilda, but is concerned that she will soon be Xerxes’ wife. Amastre overhears and questions Elviro about the king’s forthcoming marriage. She realises in despair that her last hope is gone. Atalanta arrives and Elviro makes himself known to her and explains his mission; she promises to deliver the letter and takes it from him, telling Elviro that Romilda has forgotten Arsamene and is in love with Xerxes. Atalanta now shows the letter to Xerxes, but claims that it is addressed to her, and that Arsamene’s love for Romilda was feigned. The news gives Xerxes hope and he takes the letter to Romilda, telling her that Arsamene loves her sister. She insists that she still loves him, though once alone she falls prey to jealousy.
Amastre has decided to kill herself. Elviro stops her and she determines to confront Xerxes with his treachery before she dies. Elviro tells his master that Romilda is in love with the king; Arsamene is heart-broken.
Xerxes’ forces have completed a bridge across the Hellespont, joining Asia and Europe. Sailors praise the enterprise as Xerxes instructs Ariodate to advance across into Europe. Xerxes consoles the doleful Arsamene with the news that he shall have the wife he wants – Atalanta; Xerxes will marry Romilda. Arsamene, confused, insists that it is Romilda he loves; and that he is determined to win her. Xerxes advises Atalanta to forget her love for Arsamene , but she admits that she cannot. Elviro, searching for his master on the sea shore, watches as a storm brews which threatens to destroy the bridge.
In a garden near the city Xerxes and Amastre, each lost in thought, lament the miseries of jealousy. When Xerxes attempts, again, to persuade Romilda to marry him, Amastre intervenes with drawn sword. Xerxes calls his guards, but Romilda dismisses them and asks Amastre why she leapt to her defense. Amastre explains that she was saving Romilda from being forced into a match against her will. Romilda pays glowing tribute to those true in love.
In a gallery, Arsamene and Romilda are quarrelling over the letter, but are quickly reconciled when Atalanta explains her deceit. Atalanta resigns herself to finding a lover elsewhere. Xerxes approaches and Arsamene hides. With veiled threats Xerxes now presses Romilda to accept him, and in desperation she agrees if her father will grant his consent to their marriage. Xerxes leaves to speak to Ariodate; Arsamene, emerging from hiding, accuses Romilda bitterly of betraying him.
Xerxes repeats to Arodate his promise that a man his own equal in rank shall be Romilda’s husband. Ariodate, highly honoured, imagines Xerxes to mean Arsamene and readily agrees. Xerxes returns triumphantly to Romilda, addrssing her as his queen, but to stall him she now confesses that Arsamene has kissed her; Xerxes’ furious reaction is to dispatch guards to kill Arsamene. Romilda asks Amastre to warn Arsamene that he is in danger; in return Amastre asks Romilda to convey a letter of her own to the king. Arsamene believes that the death threats are a ruse to be rid of him and he and Romilda quarrel again.
In the great temple of the sun Ariodate greets Romilda and Arsamene – still bickering – with the astonishing news that they are to be married immediately by Xerxes’ decree. Ariodate joins their hands in marriage, then hurries back to Xerxes to thank him. When Xerxes understands what has happened he turns on the quaking Ariodate in fury. A page now brings the letter, apparently from Romilda, accusing Xerxes of treachery; learning that it is from Amastre he explodes with rage and rushes from the room, to be met by Romilda, Arsamene and Amastre. Xerxes orders Arsamene to kill Romilda, but Amastre intervenes and takes Xerxes’ sword; if a traitor in love is to be punished, she will carry out the punishment. She turns the sword on Xerxes, and reveals her identity. Xerxes is humbled, and they are reconciled. Xerxes blesses the union of Romilda and Arsamene and begs forgiveness for his tyrannical behaviour.
"An Evening with Handel's opera - Xerxes" is on Wednesday, June 21 at Winchester Thurston School, 6-9pm. Enjoy light food and drink. Get tickets ($10 in advance; $20 on the door; Free to members): http://bit.ly/BritsburghAEWxerxes