Opera Scotland

Serse Xerxes

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George Frideric Handel (born Halle, 23 February 1685; died London, 14 April 1759)


After Silvio Stampiglia


Stampiglia's libretto for Bononcini's Xerse (Rome 1694), itself derived from Nicolò Minato's for Cavalli's Xerse (Venice 1654), partly based on the Histories of Herodotus (c490-c420BC).



First Performance: London (King's Theatre, Haymarket), 15 April 1738.

First Performance in Scotland: Glasgow (New Athenaeum Theatre), 3 May 1997.



Xerxes has, in recent years, become one of the most popular of Handel's Italian operas. It embraces the romantic and comic complexities of the Persian court during Xerxes' preparations for the war against Athens. These included the construction of a huge pontoon bridge to allow the transfer of his troops across the Dardanelles (also known as the Hellespont). Xerxes had succeeded his father, Darius, to the Persian throne in 485BC, immediately setting out on a conquest planned to encompass all of Europe..

The invasion sequences are derived from Herodotus, with the romantic plot involving Romilda and Atalanta invented by Minato.



Serse (Xerxes), King of the Persians (soprano)

Arsamene (Arsamenes), his brother, in love with Romilda (soprano)

Amastre (Amastres), a princess of Tagor, betrothed to Xerxes and disguised as a man (mezzo-soprano)

Ariodate (Ariodates), a prince, vassal to Xerxes (bass)

Romilda, his daughter, in love with Arsamene (soprano)

Atalanta, her sister, also (though secretly) in love with Arsamene (soprano)

Elviro, comic servant to Arsamene (baritone)


Plot Summary

Xerxes sings admiringly of a plane tree in whose shade he rests. He hears Romilda singing elsewhere in the garden and immediately falls for her, despite her lower status and much to the chagrin of his brother Arsamene who already loves her, and is loved in return. The king now orders his brother to act as intermediary. Arsamene warns Romilda of Xerxes' aim and interrupts the king and his intended, as a result of which he is banished. Romilda, still faithful to Arsamene, turns down Xerxes' proposal. Amastre, a princess promised in marriage to Xerxes, arrives to investigate the situation, disguised as a man. When Ariodate arives, Xerxes reveals to him that his daughter Romilda is to marry someone of far higher status. Ariodate is delighted, but Amastre, overhearing, is infuriated. Arsamene sends a letter to reassure Romilda of his love. Atalanta sets in motion her own plot for gaining Arsamene.

Elviro, Amrsamene's servant, has arrived at court in disguise, to deliver the letter to Romilda. His assumption that he is too late, and that Romilda will in the end marry Xerxes, greatly upsets  Amastre. Elviro explains the facts to Atalanta, who promises she will deliver the letter herself. When she shows the letter to Xerxes she pretends that she is the intended recipient, thus raising Xerxes' hopes regarding Romilda. He then passes the letter to Romilda, explaining that it is from Arsamene to Atalanta. Elviro prevents Amastre from killing herself in despair, then tells Arsamene that Romilda is now to marry Xerxes. After the Hellespont bridge is completed, Xerxes despatches Ariodate and the army to invade Europe. He then tells Arsamene that he can have his beloved Atalanta. However Arsamene confirms that it is Romilda that he loves. Xerxes makes a further attempt to secure Romilda, but is forestalled by Amastre, who threatens him, but is promptly arrested by Xerxes' guards. However Romilda liberates 'him'. A storm blows up, threatening the bridge and preventing Ariodate's departure.

Romilda's quarrel with Arsamene over the letter is reconciled when Atalanta explains her deception. However Xerxes comes once more to persuade Romilda to marry him and she agrees on condition that her father approves. This reignites Arsamene's quarrel with Romilda. However when Xerxes meets Ariodate to fulfil his earlier promise to have Ronilda marry someone of high status, Ariodate assumes this is Arsamene. He is delighted and hurries off to bring about the wedding. With Arsamene and Romilda married at last, Ariodate goes to tell the king that his orders have been carried out. Xerxes is furious at this apparent deception and orders that any lover betraying their vows, i.e. Romilda, should be killed. However Amastre now reveals her true identity and accuses Xerxes himself of treachery in betraying their marriage contract. Xerxes admits his guilt, agrees to fulfil his marriage to Amastre, forgives his brother, and apologises for his tyrannical behaviour.

The Cast

 (Amastris) Princess of Tagor betrothed to Xerxes, disguised as a man
 (Ariodates) a prince, commander of Xerxes' army
 (Arsamenes) brother of Xerxes, in love with Romilda
 Romilda's sister, also (though secretly) in love with Arsamene
 servant to Arsamene
 daughter of Ariodate, in love with Arsamene
 (Xerxes) King of Persia

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