Ombra mai fu

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"Ombra mai fu" is the opening aria from the 1738 opera Serse by George Frideric Handel.

Context[edit]

The opera was a commercial failure, lasting only five performances in London after its premiere. In the 19th century, however, the aria was rediscovered and became one of Handel's best-known pieces. Handel adapted the aria from the setting by Bononcini who, in turn, adapted it from the setting by Francesco Cavalli. All three composers had produced settings of the same opera libretto by Nicolò Minato.

Music[edit]

Performed by Enrico Caruso in 1920

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Originally composed to be sung by a soprano castrato (and sung in modern performances of Serse by a countertenor, contralto or a mezzo-soprano), it has often been arranged for other voice types and instruments, including solo organ, solo piano, violin and piano, and string ensembles, often under the title "Largo from Xerxes", although the original tempo is marked larghetto.

In the opera, the aria is preceded by a short recitativo accompagnato of nine bars, setting the scene ("Frondi tenere e belle"). The aria itself is also short; it consists of 52 bars and typically lasts 3 to 4 minutes.

The instrumentation is for a string section: first and second violins, viola, and basses. The key signature is F major, the time signature is 3/4 time. The vocal range covers C4 to F5 with a tessitura from F4 to F5.

Words[edit]

Plane tree (planted in 1680)

The title translates from the Italian as "Never was a shade". It is sung by the main character, Xerxes I of Persia, admiring the shade of a plane tree.

Frondi tenere e belle
del mio platano amato
per voi risplenda il fato.
Tuoni, lampi, e procelle
non v'oltraggino mai la cara pace,
né giunga a profanarvi austro rapace.

Ombra mai fu
di vegetabile,
cara ed amabile,
soave più.

Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never disturb your dear peace,
nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.

Never was a shade
of any plant
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.

Cultural references[edit]

Performances of this aria are included in several movies. A fully staged version appears in the film Farinelli (1994), a fictionalized biography which recounts the tumultuous relationship between Handel and the famed castrato Farinelli. The piece is also featured in Dangerous Liaisons (1988), in the original Italian, and Pride and Prejudice (TV version, 1995), which used English language lyrics. Given the setting of these two movies/novels (1780s France and England in the early 19th century), when "Ombra mai fu" was still in obscurity, inclusion of these performances, while not technically anachronistic, would probably not have been recognized by contemporary audiences.

On 24 December 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor and radio pioneer, broadcast the first AM radio program, which started with a phonograph record of "Ombra mai fu" followed by him playing "O Holy Night" on the violin and singing the final verse. The aria therefore was the first piece of music to be broadcast on radio.[1][2] The singer was probably Clara Butt.[3]

References[edit]

External links[edit]