Major Operas | Serse by George Frideric Handel | Late Baroque
Although popular now, Serse was one of Handel’s worst failures during his own time. It was only performed five times in its first run and Handel never revived it. Unusually among his operas, its libretto by Silvio Stampiglia (1664–1725) is warmly light-hearted and does not seriously concern itself with tragic events or heroic actions.
The most famous aria, ‘Ombra mai fù’, portrays the King of Persia eloquently expressing love to a tree. The opera’s arias feature imaginative use of limited resources. The score shows that Handel’s genius remained vibrant even towards the unhappy end of his operatic career.
Serse, King of Persia, sings in his garden, watched by his brother Arsemene and his servant, Elviro. Romilda, Arsemene’s secret lover, sings nearby; Serse is enchanted. He orders Arsemene to tell Romilda of his love. This interests Romilda’s sister, Atlanta, who loves Arsemene. Romilda rejects Serse’s love; Serse banishes Arsemene. Serse’s abandoned fiancée Amastre arrives in disguise and swearing vengeance. Ariodate, Romilda’s father, brings news of victory; Serse promises him that his daughter will marry a royal. Arsemene gives Elviro a letter for Romilda, describing his grief. Atlanta taunts Romilda and says that Arsemene has been unfaithful.
In disguise, Elviro tries to deliver Arsemene’s letter. He meets Amastre and reveals that Serse is to marry Romilda. Atlanta intercepts Elviro and takes the letter to Serse, claiming that it was intended for her. Serse shows it to Romilda, who continues to reject his advances. Alone, Romilda confesses her jealousy, while Amastre attempts suicide; Elviro prevents her. Elviro relates all to Arsemene. By their new bridge, Serse and Ariodate sing of conquests. Arsemene arrives; Serse pardons him and gives him permission to marry Atlanta, but he explains that he loves Romilda. Serse encourages Atlanta to forget Arsemene. A storm destroys the bridge. Amastre, calling Serse a traitor, is arrested; Romilda secures her release and then sings of her love for Arsemene.
Reunited, Romilda and Arsemene extract the truth from Atlanta. Romilda consents to marry Serse, if her father agrees, but she reveals that she will kill herself should the union go ahead. Serse asks Ariodate if he will allow Romilda to marry a royal man equal in status to Serse. Ariodate, assuming that he means Arsemene, consents. Romilda suggests to Serse that she and Arsemene have consummated their love; he orders Arsemene’s execution. Serse is given a letter supposedly from Romilda (written by Amastre) chiding him for his betrayal. He orders Arsemene to kill Romilda, but Amastre reveals her identity and declares that if the treacherous must die, the sword should turn on Serse. Serse pleads for forgiveness and offers Romilda and Arsemene his blessing.
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