|George Frideric Handel|
Serse (Italian pronunciation: [ˈsɛrse]; English title: Xerxes; HWV 40) is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. It was first performed in London on 15 April 1738. The Italian libretto was adapted by an unknown hand from that by Silvio Stampiglia for an earlier opera of the same name by Giovanni Bononcini in 1694. Stampiglia's libretto was itself based on one by Nicolò Minato that was set by Francesco Cavalli in 1654. The opera is set in Persia (modern-day Iran) in 480 BC and is very loosely based upon Xerxes I of Persia, though there is little in either the libretto or music that is relevant to that setting. Serse, originally sung by a castrato, is now usually performed by a mezzo-soprano, contralto or countertenor.
The opening aria, "Ombra mai fu", sung by Xerxes to a plane tree (Platanus orientalis), is set to one of Handel's best-known melodies, and is often known as Handel's "Largo" (despite being marked "larghetto" in the score).
In late 1737 the King's Theatre, London commissioned Handel to write two new operas. The first, Faramondo, was premiered on 3 January 1738. By this time, Handel had already begun work on Serse. The first act was composed between 26 December 1737 and 9 January 1738, the second was ready by 25 January, the third by 6 February, and Handel put the finishing touches to the score on 14 February. Serse was first performed at the King's Theatre, Haymarket on 15 April 1738.
The first production was a complete failure. The audience may have been confused by the innovative nature of the work. Unlike his other operas for London, Handel included comic (buffo) elements in Serse. Although this had been typical for 17th-century Venetian works such as Cavalli's original setting of the libretto, by the 1730s an opera seria was expected to be wholly serious, with no mixing of the genres of tragedy and comedy or high and low class characters. The musicologist Charles Burney later took Serse to task for violating decorum in this way, writing: "I have not been able to discover the author of the words of this drama: but it is one of the worst Handel ever set to Music: for besides feeble writing, there is a mixture of tragic-comedy and buffoonery in it, which Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio had banished from serious opera." Another unusual aspect of Serse is the number of short, one-movement arias, when a typical opera seria of Handel's time was almost wholly made up of long, three-movement da capo arias. This feature particularly struck the Earl of Shaftesbury, who attended the premiere and admired the opera. He noted "the airs too, for brevity's sake, as the opera would otherwise be too long [,] fall without any recitativ' intervening from one into another[,] that tis difficult to understand till it comes by frequent hearing to be well known. My own judgment is that it is a capital opera notwithstanding tis called a ballad one." It is likely that Handel had been influenced, both as regards the comedy and the absence of da capo airas, by the success in London of ballad operas such as The Beggar's Opera and John Frederick Lampe's The Dragon of Wantley, the latter of which was visited by Handel.
Serse disappeared from the stage for almost two hundred years. It enjoyed its first modern revival in Göttingen on 5 July 1924 in a version by Oscar Hagen. By 1926 this version had been staged at least 90 times in 15 German cities. Serse's success has continued. According to Winton Dean, Serse is Handel's most popular opera with modern audiences after Giulio Cesare. The very features which 18th-century listeners found so disconcerting - the shortness of the arias and the admixture of comedy - may account for its appeal to the 20th and the 21st centuries.
Serse was produced for the stage at the La Scala Theater in Milan, Italy in January 1962. The production was conducted by Piero Bellugi, and an all-star cast featuring Mirella Freni, Rolando Panerai, Fiorenza Cossotto, Irene Companez, Leonardo Monreale, Franco Calabrese, and Luigi Alva in the title role. Because Handel operas were still in a relatively early stage of their return to the stage, musicians had not yet thought to ornament the da capo sections (repetition of the A section) of the arias and thus, they were not ornamented. There is a live recording from January 19, 1962 available on the Opera D'oro label.
A complete recording was made in 1979. A particularly highly acclaimed production, sung in English, was staged by the English National Opera in 1985, to mark the 300th anniversary of the composer's birth. Conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, it was directed by Nicholas Hytner, who also translated the libretto, and starred Ann Murray in the title role, with Valerie Masterson as Romilda, Christopher Robson as Arsamene, and Lesley Garrett as Atalanta. The production returned for a sixth revival to the London Coliseum in September 2014, starring Alice Coote as Xerxes.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere Cast, 15 April 1738
|Serse||soprano castrato, now done by a mezzosoprano or countertenor||Gaetano Majorano ("Caffarelli")|
|Arsamene||mezzo-soprano, described by Handel as a "dark soprano"||Maria Antonia Marchesini ("La Lucchesina")|
|Romilda||soprano||Elisabeth Duparc ("La Francesina")|
|Atalanta||soprano||Margherita Chimenti ("La Droghierina")|
King Xerxes, looking up from contemplation of his beloved plane tree, sees Romilda, the daughter of his vassal Ariodate, and makes up his mind to marry her. However Romilda and Xerxes' brother, Arsamene, love each other, while Romilda's sister, Atalanta, is also determined to make Arsamene hers. Amastre, Xerxes' fiancée, forsaken by him for Romilda, disguises herself as a man and observes Xerxes.
Xerxes banishes Arsamene, who sends a note to Romilda through his servant Elviro, disguised as a flower vendor, pledging his eternal fidelity; he gives it to Atalanta to pass on, and she promptly hatches a plot. She tells Elviro that Romilda has given up on Arsamene and decided to be queen, and shows the note to Xerxes, claiming that it was addressed to herself. Xerxes determines to marry Arsamene off to Atalanta and shows the note to Romilda, who nevertheless decides to stay true to the man she loves.
The scene changes to the bridge over the Hellespont. Xerxes tells Ariodate that his daughter Romilda must wed, by the king's command, a member of Xerxes' family, equal in blood to himself. Xerxes pursues Romilda until Amastre-in-disguise starts a fight as a distraction. Romilda persuades Xerxes to let her deal with the problem, and is pleased and gratified to learn that Amastre started it to rescue her. Arsamene and Romilda meet again and fight until Elviro drags Atalanta on to explain matters, and she declares that she'll find someone else. Elviro remarks on a storm threatening the bridge, then sings a ditty to Bacchus. Romilda and Arsamene are joyfully reunited, although she then has to hide him while his brother presses his suit. Romilda tells Xerxes that he must have her father's consent before she can obey the king's command; Arsamene is displeased.
Xerxes reiterates to Ariodate that Romilda must wed a member of Xerxes' family, equal in blood to himself, who will appear at his home; Ariodate mistakenly thinks he is referring to his brother Arsamene rather than himself, and happily goes home to prepare the wedding. Xerxes then tells Romilda that she will marry him. Romilda reveals that Arsamene has kissed her; Xerxes declares that he will kill his own brother, and Romilda agrees to marry Xerxes to spare Arsamene's life.
Arsamene and Romilda arrive at Ariodate's place, where he happily announces that they are to marry by King Xerxes' command. Disbelieving, they joyfully do so. After Arsamene and Romilda wed, Xerxes arrives, ready for his wedding and not at all happy to learn that his vassal has just married his bride off to his brother. When Amastre-in-disguise appears, Xerxes is calling out for someone to avenge him and wants to know what Amastre-in-disguise has been doing popping in and out of the entire opera; Amastre asks whether he wants her to kill the traitor, the one who, having been so dearly loved, went off chasing another. When he demands that she do so, she reveals herself to Xerxes, who becomes ashamed of his faithlessness and tells her to go ahead and kill him. Amastre, still in love with him, refuses, and Xerxes offers her his queen's crown once more.
The libretto includes some motives that are based upon events that actually happened. Serse, Amastre and Arsamene are all based on historical persons. The story of Xerxes wanting to marry the love of his brother Arsamenes is based upon a real story. In reality though, it was a wife of another brother Xerxes fell in love with but failed to marry himself  The collapsing of a bridge over the Hellespont and Xerxes returning from a successful campaign in Greece are real events during the reign of Xerxes, though they are anachronistic here.
- Westminster 1965, recorded at Mozart Hall, Vienna with Maureen Forrester, Lucia Popp, Marilyn Tyler, Mildred Miller, and Tom Hemsley with the Vienna Academy Chamber Choir and Vienna Radio Orchestra, Brian Priestman conducting. Released on CD by Deutsche Grammophon in 2009 (4778339).
- CBS 1979, Carolyn Watkinson, Paul Esswood, Barbara Hendricks, and Ulrik Cold. Conducted by Jean-Claude Malgoire with La Grande Ecurie et la Chambre du Roy. (CBS SM3K 36941).
- Video 1995: British television broadcast of the English National Opera production with Ann Murray, and Valerie Masterson. Sung in English, it was conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, and directed by Nicholas Hytner. Released on DVD by Arthaus Musik.
- BMG 1998, Jennifer Smith, Lisa Milne, Susan Bickley, Brian Asawa, and David Thomas Conducted by Nicholas McGegan with the Hanover Band and Chorus (75605 51312 2).
- EMI 2003, Anne Sofie von Otter and Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz with William Christie conducting Les Arts Florissants. Released by Virgin Veritas in 2004.
- Best p.14
- Dean in Opera and the Enlightenment, p.135
- Best p.15
- Keates (2014), p. 10.
- Opera and the Enlightenment p.166. Dean calls Hagen's vocal score of Serse "a grinning parody".
- Opera and the Enlightenment p.135
- Best p.18
- Evan Dickerson, "Seen and Heard Opera Review" on Seen and Heard International website, retrieved 2 October 2014
- William Hartston, "Handel's Xerxes by the English National Opera: Astonishing comedy, glorious fun", Daily Express (London), 17 September 2014. Accessed 2 October 2014.
- Herodotus, Histories: IX, 108-110
- Dean, Winton (2006), Handel's Operas, 1726-1741, Boydell Press, ISBN 1843832682 The second of the two volume definitive reference on the operas of Handel
- Winton Dean, "Handel's Serse" in Opera and the Enlightenment ed. Thomas Bauman (Cambridge University Press, 1995)
- Terence Best's booklet notes to the Virgin recording by Christie
- Keates, Jonathan (2014). "Musical London 1737-38", in Xerxes, (programme of the English National Opera production revial). pp. 10-13.