A Synopsis of the Opera "Xerxes"

by Alex Jakubik

"Xerxes" is a knot of infatuations with a royal Persian setting.

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"Xerxes" ("Serse") is an opera in three acts by the German-English composer George Frideric Handel (1684-1759). The libretto is by an unidentified poet who derived the story from Silvio Stampiglia's "Il Xerse." Handel composed "Xerxes" during the winter of 1737-1738, after a difficult period marked by the failure of his Italian opera company and after suffering what historians assume to be a mild stroke. After its initial premiere, "Xerxes" lay unperformed for almost two hundred years before enjoying a revival during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Act One

The opera opens with Xerxes singing the praise of the tree he is sitting under for providing him with shade. His brother Arasemene is present but goes in search of his beloved, Romilda. Xerxes hears Romilda's voice and becomes enchanted, despite his engagement to Amastre. Amastre becomes jealous and disguises herself as a man in order to spy on Xerxes more discreetly. Xerxes unknowingly sings about his love, and Amastre erupts angrily upon realizing she is not the object of Xerxes' attention. Meanwhile, Arsamene writes a letter to Romilda further professing his love.

Act Two

Xerxes decides he must have Romilda's hand in marriage. Atalanta, the sister of Romilda, intercepts Arsamene's letter and tells Xerxes she was the intended recipient. Xerxes, however, takes the letter and presents it to Romilda, claiming it was meant for Atalanta, thereby supposedly proving her lover Arsamene unfaithful. Romilda remains faithful to Arsamene but expresses her frustration after Xerxes departs. Xerxes and Arsamene try to reach an agreement concerning their conflicting love interests, but they find no solution. The second act closes with the disguised Amastre still attempting to persuade Xerxes to return to her.

Act Three

Arsamene and Romilda realize their letter has been used to manipulate them, and they reaffirm their love for each other. Xerxes appears and continues to proclaim his love for Romilda. While Arsamene is hiding, Romilda pacifies Xerxes by agreeing to marry him if her father Ariodate agrees to it. Xerxes then tells Ariodate of his idea to marry Romilda to an unknown prince, and Ariodate assumes Xerxes means Arsamene. Ariodate then officiates the wedding of Romilda and Arsamene, inadvertently making Xerxes livid. The drama comes to a head with Amastre openly accusing Xerxes of faithlessness while she also threatens suicide. Xerxes relents in his pursuits after this extreme gesture, and Arsamene and Romilda are able to express their love for each other openly.

Critical Acclaim and Performance History

The opera "Xerxes," upon its premiere in 1738, had only five performances. Critics and the general public considered it a failure although Handel went on to compose many other successful works. The opera lay in obscurity for at least a century until interest grew in edited portions of it. The opening largo, in which Xerxes sings about the shade of his tree, has achieved notable popularity on its own. In the 20th century, "Xerxes" has enjoyed a minor revival, with productions appearing in various opera companies and universities.

About the Author

Alex Jakubik began his writing career in 2000 with book-cover summaries for Barnes & Noble. He has also authored concert programs and travel blogs, and worked both nationally and internationally in the arts. Jakubik holds a Bachelor of Music degree from Indiana University and a Master of Music from Yale University.

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