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Opera Club: Handel’s ‘Xerxes’ (Serse)

Coin with Xerxes head on it.

Georg Friedrich Handel
Xerxes (Serse)
Deutsche Oper am Rhein, Düsseldorf


As our ‘Classic’ opera we recommend the late Handel opera Xerxes (Serse) in a production by Norwegian director Stefan Herheim at Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf.  We’ll be posting the ‘Discovery’ on Friday this week.

While some of Handel’s previous operas had included satirical elements, Xerxes is his most openly and convincingly comical work. Only loosely based on the life of Persian king Xerxes and his expedition against Greece in about 470 BC, the libretto (an anonymous revision of Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto of the same name) is really an exploration of amorous intrigues at court. The opera’s narrative revolves around the shared love interest of Xerxes and his brother Arsamene: Romilda, the daughter of Xerxes’ vassal. Romilda on her part is infatuated with Arsamene, but so is her sister, Atalanta. As if that wasn’t enough of a recipe for turmoil, there is an added complication: Xerxes is already engaged, to the daughter of a neighbouring king, Amastre, who is wise to her fiancé’s gallivanting and seeks revenge.

Stefan Herheim exploits the comical premise of the story and realises a production which is relentlessly silly, and which sometimes ignores the subtler notes of gravity the piece also offers. Visually, the production is a treat, with its many references to Baroque opera practice. Handel’s music is less dramatic than previous works, placing great emphasis on lyricism. Deviating from opera seria conventions, many arias are short and composed without the typical da capo. The effective integration into the action aids the narrative flow and makes for a diverting experience. The score includes one of Handel’s most famous arias, “Ombra mai fù”.

While at its premiere in London, 1738, the part of Xerxes was sung by one of the most famous countertenors of the era, Caffarelli (real name Gaetano Majorano), the role is now performed by a countertenor (as is the case here) or mezzo-soprano. In Düsseldorf, Xerxes is sung by Valer Sabadus, Arsamene by Terry Wey, Amastre by Katarina Bradic. Music director is Konrad Junghänel, the period ensemble is Neue Düsseldorfer Hofmusik.

Sung in Italian, with German recitatives.  English surtitles available.

Last week’s Opera Club link: