Saving an Opera from its Opening

by Robert L. Kendrick

In countless versions, the first arioso (“Ombra mai fu/Never was there shade”) of Handel’s Serse has been sung, arranged, used in film, and recorded as early as Enrico Caruso’s take (1920; an octave down!), while it even pioneered musical broadcasting on AM radio (1906). For most of its audiences—and even some of its performers—the aria’s meaning as an address by a king (Xerxes of Persia) to the shade provided by a beloved plane tree goes completely unnoticed. Still, understanding the nature of the opening is central to questions of literary register and meaning in the libretto, and thus to the present performances by Haymarket Opera Company. Although the opera, whose first London stagings met with little success in 1738, was revived in Chicago as early as 1935 (in a student production translated and directed by none other than Thornton Wilder at the University of Chicago), our production is the first original-language professional performance in Chicago.

The opening also points to the reasons for Serse’s ambiguity. The original libretto had been crafted in 1654 by the brilliant Venetian poet Nicolò Minato, to be set by Monteverdi’s former deputy Francesco Cavalli (Handel likely did not know this score), and this scene, in a longer version, does indeed begin Minato’s text incongruously with its singer’s royal status, but completely in line with the ironic norms of seventeenth-century Venetian libretti. For his immediate model, however, Handel was working from a libretto and score of the piece that he certainly did know, as he borrowed from it in several spots: a revision of Minato’s text for a Roman theater in 1694, written by the classicizing librettist Silvio Stampiglia and set to music by Handel’s great London rival Giovanni Bononcini at the beginning of the latter’s career. The unknown crafter of Handel’s 1738 libretto trimmed Stampiglia’s version further; overall, the opera’s story has a few elements taken from the Greek historian Herodotus’ account of the Persian king (518-465 BCE) en route to his invasion of Greece, but much is invented.

This originally 17th-century text, then, brought with it the conventions of Italian opera c. 1650. Comic and serious moments are juxtaposed (just as in Cesti’s L’Orontea). There are numerous short and psychologically shifting arias, many of which lack the customary character exits. You will see characters of different social classes together on stage. One of Minato’s 17th-century figures, the bibulous Elviro, seems almost out of place on an 18th-century stage. Another seventeenth-century convention was the power—and deception—of voice, and indeed Minato interrupted Serse’s opening arboreal ruminations by having the king fall in love with Romilda—and hence kickstarting the plot—only through hearing her disembodied singing in the next scene. Even more ironically, Romilda’s own opening arioso here mocks the monarch for his affection towards the tree, as opposed to a female beloved. This unearthly vocal potency underlies several other moments in the opera, but the entire opening, as Silke Leopold has noted, leaves the audience in doubt as to whether the title character is to be taken seriously or comically; in the former case, as Wolfgang Osthoff once argued, the origin of the tree story in Herodotus would suggest a tone of seriousness, soon to be deflected by all the amatory passions on stage. Indeed, in that sense we could imagine Serse as an English Enlightenment nobleman admiring the beauties of nature before becoming “distracted” by Romilda.

Despite a string of Act 2 and 3 arias apportioned to the major personages, clearly the title character is central to the whole plot and to its memorable moments. The famed castrato Cafarelli (Gaetano Majorano) created this role in 1738; Handel’s other singers were less renowned, but the parts for Romilda and Arsamene are often expressively if not technically complex. The latter, Serse’s brother, was originally sung by a female mezzo-soprano, in yet another case of cross-gender casting.

Once past the opening, listeners’ first reactions, then and now, are to the relatively short arias in the work, of which those in Act 1 are largely not in the expected ABA (“da capo”) form. Indeed, their simplicity led one of its early listeners, the Earl of Shaftesbury, in 1738 to characterize Serse as “a capital opera, notwithstanding ‘tis called a ballad one,” with reference of course to John Gay/J.C. Pepusch’s famed Beggar’s Opera of a few years earlier. Some critics have considered this a “progressive” or “neoclassical” turn in the composer’s output, but its actual effect in terms of dramatic tempo is to return to earlier seventeenth-century models, in which arias are relatively short, in line with the libretto’s origins. The comic side of Serse’s passions stands in sharp contrast to the sort of gravitas that modern audiences expect from Handel’s later operas from Giulio Cesare onwards, continuing through Ariodante and Alcina of 1735.

All the more striking, then, are the longer and more impassioned moments, such as Serse’s aria “Se bramate d’amar” in which he reproaches Romilda for her constancy towards her beloved Arsamene, even though she thinks, erroneously, that she has been betrayed by the latter. This is followed by Romilda’s G-minor moment, “È gelosia quella tiranna,” Amastre’s F#-minor “Anima infida, tradita io sono,” and Arsamene’s “Quella che tutta fè,” in F minor. This vertiginous tonal descent through successively lower, and minor, keys tracks the emotional trajectory of these characters through despair and contemplated suicide for betrayal, and it seems no accident that all four pieces are indeed da capo arias. The sudden tragic turn is interrupted only once by Elviro, but clearly the emotional character of the whole drama has changed drastically, in a way reminiscent of other Handel operas.

Still, the original cutting ambiguity of Minato’s libretto comes through, even in Act 3, with Serse’s extrovert aria “Per rendermi beato, parto,” a hope of amatory and not military conquest. The irony of Arsamene and Romilda’s duet “Troppo oltraggi la mia fede,” a moment of mutual denunciation of a seemingly ruined relationship, just before Ariodate is able to reconcile the couple (and have them marry, much to Serse’s fury), is set by Handel to one of the da capo duet arias that he had written since his first Italian days in 1704 (and to which he would return a few years later in a series of duet cantatas). Only Amastre’s final revelation of her true identity, and her own attempt at suicide, are enough to turn Serse back to her and to his original vow to marry his betrothed. All of this is quickly done in recitative, and it seems fitting—as well as a last touch for the original singer of the role, Elisabeth Duparc--that the last aria of finally fulfilled love (“Caro voi siete all’alma”) is given to Romilda.

Financial and health problems notwithstanding, Handel wrote this score in his usual short order, about three weeks per act, from Christmas 1737 to March 1738. It shared the fate of his other late London operas, closing after only five performances. The work was first printed in its entirety by Friedrich Chrysander in 1860, using as its source a performance copy, and not Handel’s original manuscript. Chrysander’s version was the source of “Ombra mai fu” ’s fame, which seems to have taken off via myriad arrangements as “Handel’s Celebrated Largo” from about 1875 onwards. Hence the various reprints of Chrysander currently on the market and the internet are not trustworthy; we employ Clifford Bartlett’s edition, taken from the autograph, while Terence Best’s 2003 new critical edition of the opera sets the standard. Thus these HOC performances also mark the first local stagings of the score as Handel intended it to sound.

Robert L. Kendrick
University of Chicago

Donald Burrows, Handel (“The Master Musicians”; 2nd edition, Oxford UP, 2012) contains a traditional biography and mentions Handel’s situation in 1738.
Winton Dean, Handel’s Operas 1726-1741 (2006), pp. 417-47, gives a detailed account of the score and sources.
E. T. Harris, George Frederic Handel: A Life with Friends (2014) is a refreshingly different take on Handel’s life, which can also be said of:
D. Hunter, The Lives of George Frideric Handel (2015)
A. Landgraf and D. Vickers, The Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia (2009), for the “Serse” entry.
H.S. Powers, “Il Serse trasformato” [in English]; Musical Quarterly 47 (1961) and 48 (1962; on the successive versions of the libretto from 1654 to 1738)

These are surprisingly few, and fewer yet of the critical edition. Two recommended versions are those conducted by William Christie (Erato, 2010) and Christian Curnyn (Chandos/Chaconne, 2013). Videos of Italian-language productions seem unavailable on the current North American market.


by George Frideric Handel

Saturday, September 29, 2018 - 7:30pm
Sunday, September 30, 2018 - 5:00pm
Tuesday, October 2, 2018 - 7:30pm

Studebaker Theater
410 S Michigan Ave
Chicago, IL 60605

Tickets: $30 - $85