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XERXES THE OPERA: Philippe Jaroussky performs Handel’s “Ombra mai fù” ( Serse )

Xerxes Jarouski Aria “Ombra mai fù” (1 Act) from the Opera Serse sung by the renowned young French countertenor Phillipe Jarrousky. First performed in London at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London in 1738, you can listen to Jaroussky’s rendition here.


A San Francisco Opera Company version of Xerxes, 2011

Serse (Xerxes) is an opera series in three acts by baroque composer George Frederic Handel. The Italian libretto was adapted by an unknown hand by Silvio Stampiglia for an earlier opera by Giovanni Bononcini in 1694. Handel’s opera is set in Persia (modern day Iran) in 480 BC and is very loosely based on the story of King Xerxes I of Persia, though there is little in this satire of royal whims and intrigues that is relevant to the period or setting. The part of Xerxes, originally sung by a castrato, is now performed on the whole by a mezzo-soprano, contralto or countertenor.

The opera was received badly at the time, and confused audiences, due in part to its being very unusually constructed for a Handel opera mixing up genres e.g. comedy in an age where decorum in composition was the accepted form. Although the English title Xerxes is widely used, the original Italian title was Serse. The story centres around an intrgue of desire and unrequited love and features Amastre, Xerxes’ fiancée, forsaken by him for another, disguise herself as a man in order to observe Xerxes and reveal herself at the right moment.

The opening aria, “Ombra mai fu“, sung by Xerxes to his favourite plane tree (Platanus orientalis) under which he often mediates, is set to one of Handel’s best-known melodies, and is often played in an orchestral arrangement, known as Handel’s “largo” (despite being marked “larghetto” in the score). In 2011 the opera was performed to much acclaim in which the aria was sung by a monarch during WWII to a real plane: a Spitfire, in fact, because in this updated version by the English Touring Opera, Director James Conway had Xerxes sending his fighters to combat an invasion in this century. Conway also criss-crossed the stage front with search lights, used multimedia videos on set and had the roar of plane engines fading into the overture played on the instruments it was written for.