133. Serse (Handel)

  • Dramma per musica in 3 acts
  • Composer: George Frideric Handel
  • Libretto: Anon., after Il Xerse by Nicolò Minoto revised by Silvia Stampiglia
  • First performed: King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London, 15 April 1738

It’s almost obligatory to compare Serse to Mozart; it’s an elegant farce with heart, ending in lovers paired off (not always as they’d like), forgiveness of an erring male, and a transcendentally beautiful chorus. Today, it is one of Handel’s two most popular works, and may be his most engaging.  Comic, tuneful, and theatrical, it moves swiftly; the plot is immediate; and the characterization intimate.  Nor do we have to make any allowances for the conventions of opera seria (da capo exit arias and all).

And 18th century audiences hated it; the opera sank after five performances.  Handel, musicologist Charles Burney concluded with 18th-century forthrightness, must have been mad when he wrote the opera.  “He was neither in health, prosperity, or spirits, when it was composed; appearances remain in his foul score of a mind disturbed, if not diseased.”

For a start, the opera is comic, starting with its treatment of the tyrannical lead. Serse (Xerxes the Great) may be king of the Persians, would-be conqueror of the Greeks – but a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion excites his languid spleen.  He is discovered singing a love song to a tree; he thinks it’s beautiful, but it’s really plane. (An episode lifted from Herodotus.) This is Handel’s immortal Largo (properly Larghetto), “Ombra mai fu”.

Opera seria characters and buffa characters inhabit the same world.  Serse and his brother Arsamene are both in love with the high-minded Romilda; in turn, she and her flirtatious sister Atalanta both love Arsamene.  Love letters are delivered to the wrong person; Serse’s old flame Amastre turns up disguised as a man; and Arsamene’s servant (in drag) impersonates a flower seller, imitating London street cries.

The drama, Burney carped, was “one of the worst that Handel ever set to Music: for besides feeble writing, there is a mixture of tragi-comedy and buffoonery in it, which Apostolo Zeno and Metastasio had banished from the serious opera.”  (He acknowledged, though, that “it gave Handel an opportunity of indulging his native love and genius for humour”.)

That deplorable libretto was, in fact, a mid-17th century Venetian opera, with its mixture of high and low life. (We saw this in, for instance, Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea, where Nero, his empresses, and Seneca share the stage with a bawdy nurse and amorous servants, or his Ritorno d’Ulisse, with its comically villainous suitors.) Nicolò Minato wrote the libretto for Francesco Cavalli in 1654; Handel used the text of his rival Giovanni Boconcini’s 1694 opera. With his usual magpie instinct, he also helped himself to some of the music. Both “Ombra mai fu” and “Crude furie” are, David Vickers says, closely modelled on Bononcini examples.  “The borrowings, as so often with Handel,” Jonathan Keates claims, “are no mere plagiarisms, but inspired transformations and elaborations of the original.”

The score, too, is flexible as a Venetian opera. Characters talk (recitative) during arias; brief snatches of arioso or chorus pepper dialogue.  “’Tis difficult to understand till it comes by frequent hearing to be well known,” Lord Shaftesbury complained. Handel’s audiences expected three-part da capo arias; Handel gave them 52 arias, most no longer than a minute.  They are agreeable and gentle, but rarely draw attention to themselves.  Many of them, David Kimbell (Handel on the Stage) argues, are really songs, “simple, tuneful, technically undemanding”, in binary, ternary, or strophic form. 

Serse (originally sung by the great castrato Caffarelli) has the lion’s share of outstanding arias. Besides “Ombra mai fu”, he has “Pìù che penso alle fiamme del core”, burning with love for Romilda; “Se bramate d’amor chi vi sdegna”, which Burney thought in the style of Hasse and Vinci; and the countertenor warhorse “Crude furie”.  Serse, having lost Romilda to his brother, wants his rage to consume the world and eclipse the sun.

Atalanta’s coquettish “Un cenno legiadretto” is a fine opportunity for a singer with charm and a sense of comedy. The finale – wayward man returns to constant but wronged woman – anticipates The Marriage of Figaro.  The work ends with Romilda’s aria “Caro voi siete all’alma” and the rapt chorus “Ritorna a noi la calma”.


SUGGESTED RECORDINGS

Deutsche Gramoophon recently released a CD headed by Franco Fagioli as Serse and Vicica Genaux as Arsamene, with Il Pomo d’Oro conducted by Maxim Emelyanychev.  It’s an excellent, vital performance, and will probably be a benchmark recording.

Serse, like many comedies, needs to be seen as well as heard.  Deutsche Oper am Rhein’s 2019 production, set in an 18th-century theatre, is hilarious.  Valer Sabadus steals the show as the mincing, narcissistic Serse.  One caveat: He was sick during recording, so his voice lacks its usual bloom.  Probably the best scene is “Se bramate d’amar chi vi sdegna”; Atalanta eggs on Serse to kill her sister, handing him daggers, pistols, crossbows, snakes, and a cannon – which literally brings the house down. Watch it on YouTube, or on OperaVision. Tag: “In Persia, kings are shadier than their trees.”

There’s also an attractive straightforward staging from Dresden (2000), with Paula Rasmussen as Serse.


WORKS CONSULTED

  • Edward Blakeman, The Faber Pocket Guide to Handel, Faber & Faber, 2009
  • Charles Burney, A General History of Music: From the Earliest Ages to the Present Period (1789), Dover 1957
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Jonathan Keates, Handel: The Man and His Music, Pimlico, rev. 2008
  • David Kimbell, Handel on the Stage, Cambridge University Press, 2016
  • David Vickers, “Handel’s Serse“, Deutsche Grammophon 2018

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