Radio New Zealand Concert network
Sunday 8th of December 2013 at 3.03 - 6 pm
Sunday 5th of December 2010 at 3.04 - 6 pm
HANDEL: Xerxes, an opera in three acts
Xerxes.............................. Anna Stéphany
Arsamene.......................... David Daniels
Amastre............................ Hilary Summers
Ariodate........................... Brindley Sherratt
Romilda............................ Rosemary Joshua
Atalanta............................ Joélle Harvey
Elviro................................ Andreas Wolf
Early Opera Company/Christian Curnyn
(Chandos CHAN 0797)
HANDEL: Serse (Xerxes), an opera in three acts
Xerxes.......................... Anne Sofie von Otter
Romilda........................ Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz
Atalanta........................ Sandrine Piau
Arsamene...................... Lawrence Zazzo
Amastre........................ Silvia Tro Santafé
Ariodate........................ Giovanni Furlanetto
Elviro............................ Antonio Abete
Les Arts Florissants Chorus & Orch/William Christie
(Virgin 5 45711)
This opera has to be seen to be believed, or appreciated. Here are the notes I prepared for our video group in 2008.
It starts with Handel’s celebrated large ode to a plain plane tree (not ‘largo’ but ‘larghetto’). Some say this is one of George Frederic’s best operas, and yet it only lasted for five performances in London in 1738, and was then ignored, until 1979. And it has been performed in New Zealand.
It is an opera seria, meaning serious opera, though it contains comical and satirical elements (and it should not, the critics have said); for us it will be a serial opera, bifurcated. We have two video-recordings to study:
*one conducted by Charles Mackerras (Australian expert on Baroque music, and everything else, including G&S, with his Pineapple Poll ballet), in English translation (as is the custom at the English National Opera in the Coliseum);
*the other is from the Dresden Festival, in Italian with English translation at the bottom.
Our strategy will be as follows: we watch a scene from the Dresden version first, and learn the subtitles by heart; then we look at the same thing in English in the London version, and with the translation in mind we will know what they are saying, though it is a different set of English words.
The Dresden version is generally darker than the London setting (ever since they cleared the fog) and this will help us read the writing. The ENO production is greener; and the gimmick is to rearrange the (green) deckchairs, as on the sinking Titanic; this seems fitting, as the great achievement of Xerxes was the bridge of boats linking Asia to Greece, which sank in a storm.
Xerxes I (who reigned from 486 to 465, BCE, the BaCkward Era) is called Ahasuerus in the Bible (in the Book of Esther); `akhashwerosh in Hebrew; Khshayarsha in Persian; Xerxes in Greek. He was in the first history book I bought (when I was 8), I remember.
*Serse/Xerxes, Emperor of Persia (soprano castrato; women take the role now)
*Arsamene, brother of Serse (alto, originally a woman, but male alto also possible)
*Amastre, foreign princess, fiancée of Xerxes, forsaken by him (contralto, female)
*Ariodate, head of the armed forces, father of Romilda and Atalanta (bass)[our Rodney]
*Romilda, reciprocating beloved of Arsamene, but desired by Serse (soprano)
*Atalanta, also loves Arsamene passionately and aims to take her sister’s place (soprano)
*Elviro, bodyguard serving Arsamene(bass)
The King sings a love-song to his beloved plane-tree:
Ombra mai fu di vegetabile cara ed amabile soave più.
Roughly: No vegetable matter ever gave shade (ombra) as lovely as yours.
His brother Arsamene, accompanied by Elviro, enters in search of Romilda. She is singing about love, referring to Serse’s love for his tree. Serse falls in love with her at first sight (and sound). He asks Arsamene (of all people!) to arrange a royal marriage with her, and when his brother stalls, he decides to go to her himself. Arsamene warns Romilda; she vows to be constant. Atalanta seizes this opportunity to declare her love to Arsamene in the presence of her sister Romilda. The vivacious Lesley Garrett does this (entwining herself around his deckchair) and the audience loves her! We end with her exit.
Handel, *Serse/Xerxes (Part 2)
Remember, everyone is in love with someone who is unavailable under the present circumstances, and we are wondering whether they can all get a good outcome eventually (note the tautology: e-vent = out-come).
Atalanta had stalked off when she failed to win Prince Arsamene from her sister Romilda. Xerxes comes in to woo Romilda, asking her to share his throne; she shows reluctance; when Arsamene intervenes, he is banished from the court; he sings his aria, and then departs with Elviro. The king pours out his love in song to Romilda (immobile and not looking at him) and then goes off. Alone, Romilda declares her unfailing fidelity.
Amastre, the foreign fiancée of Xerxes, appears on the scene; she is disguised as a soldier and conceals herself, to observe what her betrothed is doing.
A triumphal march and a chorus of fighting men: General Ariodate celebrates the victory he has won for Xerxes. He is told that as a reward his daughter Romilda will marry into royalty. All march off. Xerxes ponders (aloud, of course, as the ancients used to think and read out loud); Amastre overhears him, and responds, but does not reveal her identity. When she has gone off, he sings about the fiery pangs of love that are, shall we say, driving him out of his tree (this time he is not thinking about his beloved tree).
In exile, Arsamene gives Elviro a letter to take to Romilda, to arrange a secret meeting; this missive will thicken the plot, or bring the pot to the boil.
Back at the court, Amastre talks (to herself) furiously of vengeance on Xerxes. (At the ENO the curtain will come down, and we will leave it there).
Haendel, Serse/Xerxes (Part 3)
Atalanta tries to persuade her sister Romilda to accept the offer of marriage from Shah Xerxes (and that would leave Arsamane free to marry her); but Romilda will have none of this. Nevertheless Atalanta is still determined to win Arsamane over with her seductive charms.
Here beginneth Act 2 , wherein the fateful letter worketh its mischief, and the cardinal sin of reading others’ mail ith committed.
Elviro is acting as Arsamane’s postman, to deliver a letter to Romilda; and since he has been banished with his master, he returns in disguise, as a flower-lady (Won’t you buy my pretty flowers?). While he is talking to himself about the royal love-triangle, he is overheard by Amastre, the spurned fiancée of Xerxes, who is transvesting (cross-dressing) as a soldier. He openly tells her the whole story, and she sings (to herself) about the hopelessness of her situation.
Elviro then encounters Atalanta, who manages to extract the epistle from him, telling him that Romilda is busy writing a letter to Xerxes, declaring that she lives only for him. Elviro is somewhat dismayed at this apparent fickleness of Romilda, and he goes off to sell his garden blooms.
Atalanta blithely opens the missive, and when Xerxes happens along, lamenting the torment he is suffering, she mendaciously and audaciously tells him that this love letter is from Arsamane to her. Xerxes reads it (not exactly aloud, but softly); and when Atalanta asserts that Arsamene’s love for Romilda is mere pretence, he is so encouraged that he gives his blessing to a marriage of Atalanta and Arsamene.
Xerxes now goes to Romilda and triumphantly shows her the letter that has supposedly been written for Atalanta. However, Romilda stands firm in her love for Arsamene, and so Xerxes exclaims (in an aria, with a repeat) that he would reject her, but he does not know how, but he stages a walkout and stalks off.
Summary: King/Shah Xerxes of Persia (5th C BCE) is in love with a plane tree, but betrothed to a foreign princess named Amastre, and now ardently obsessed with Romilda, the beloved of his brother Arsamene, who himself is being passionately pursued by her sister Atalanta, whom nobody cares about except possibly their father Ariodate, head of the army. Amastre has disguised herself as a soldier to spy on her fiancé Xerxes. Arsamene has sent a love-letter (apparently with no names, only terms of endearment) to Romilda, but this has been intercepted by Atalanta, and shown to Xerxes as intended for her. He gives her permission to marry Arsamene, and takes it to Romilda, expecting her to capitulate to him, but she remains steadfastly faithful to Arsamene.
Part 4 : Act 2, Scene 5-11
Romilda soliloquizes about jealousy in love-relationships. Amastre has had enough of infidelity and is putting herself to the sword, but Elviro (Arsamene’s servant) restrains her. She sings an aria, and departs ‘infuriata’. Elviro tells Arsamene, mistakenly, that Romilda now loves Xerxes, and Arsamene also sings an aria of disappointment, and becomes suicidal. At this point (Scene 8) we see the famous bridge of boats, constructed to enable the Persian army cross from Asia to Europe, to fight the Greeks. Viva Serse! Long live Xerxes.
The Shah tells his brother Arsamene that he can marry his beloved, meaning Atalanta, but when the truth is realized, Arsamene desires revenge. Xerxes then tells Atalanta that Arsamene loves Romilda (as if she did not know that already); she says she cannot stop loving Arsamene. The Shah is sad. Elviro comes onto the empty stage in a state of inebriation, seeking his master; he witnesses the collapse of the massive bridge in a storm.
Part 5: Act 2, Scenes 12-14
King Xerxes of Persia (5th Century BCE) has been unlucky in love and war. His bridge of boats, constructed to enable his army to cross from Asia to Europe, to conquer the Greeks, has collapsed in a storm. His love affairs have moved from his adored plane tree (we see it again in the Dresden version) to Romilda, the beloved of his brother Arsamene, who is also loved by Romilda’s sister Atalanta.
After a plethora of amatory intrigues, Xerxes is now seen complaining about his unhappy jealous state. His fiancée, the foreign princess Amastre, is standing nearby, railing against his perfidy, though he does not recognize her, since she is disguised as a soldier; she nearly gives herself away again.
Serse turns to plead with Romilda to yield to him; she asks for more time to think. Amastre intervenes impulsively. Xerxes orders his guards to imprison the interloper, and leaves; but Romilda manages to have Amastre released. Romilda tells herself that she will remain true to Arsamene.
Act 3, Scenes 1-4
Arsamene and Romilda are confronting Atalanta over her part in deceiving the king about who loves whom. They are reconciled, and so Atalanta will have to find someone else.
Xerxes approaches Romilda for yet another attempt to persuade her to be his consort; she suggests that her father’s permission will need to be obtained. He says he is like a moth to her flame, and goes off to consult with her father, Ariodate, the chief of his army. Arsamene has overheard this, and he chides her; she defends herself, but leaves in distress. He pours out his sorrows (not in Dresden version).
Part 6: Act 3, Scene 5-11
At the court of good King Xerxes the pursuit of love continues apace, with everyone not able to have the person they desire. The serious comedy of errors thickens when Xerxes tells General Ariodate (not for the first time, see Act 1) that his daughter Romilda will have a royal husband; Ariodate thinks that Arsamene is meant and gives his consent. When Xerxes meets Romilda (she had managed to fend him off last time by requiring her father’s permission and now he thinks he has it ) she still refuses him in favour of Arsamene his brother. That problem is easily solved: the King commands that Arsamene should be put to death forthwith.
Romilda asks Amastre (the forsaken foreign fiancée of Xerxes) to warn Arsamene, and in return Amastre requests Romilda to deliver a letter from her to Xerxes, in which she declares her continuing love for him, even though he has been cruel to her.
Romilda herself tries to convince Arsamene that his life is at stake, but he mistrusts her, and they have another of their tiffs, and their bickering continues as they walk into their wedding ceremony (Surprise!), arranged by the father of the bride, of course.
Xerxes finds he has missed the boat, and blows his top. He receives a letter, which he thinks is from Romilda, but he sees it is from Amastre. He urges the Furies to pour black venom on him. (In the Dresden version he sets fire to his beloved tree!)
The whole company tries to pacify Xerxes, but he orders Arsamene to kill Romilda with a sword. Amastre intervenes and takes the weapon, and Xerxes asks “Who are you, always distubing me?” She/he declares that she is seeking to administer justice; she asks him if he wishes to pierce the heart of one who is unfaithful, and he agrees; she turns the sword on him and reveals her identity. Xerxes repents and embraces her, and all is forgiven. Romilda sings the final aria, and all rejoice that calm has returned, and honour and love are united.
Poor Atalanta (Lesley Garrett) is left bereft, to seek a new lover (but Elviro the servant is there, and he’s free!).