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Opera in three acts
Text based on a libretto by Silvio Stampiglia
First performed April 15th 1738, King's Theatre Haymarket, London
ca. 3hrs 20 mins including one interval (after 2 hours)
Sung in Italian with German surtitles
The king loves a tree – but adores women too. And he knows how to rule. The opera begins with his declaration of love for a plane tree, Ombra mai fu – one of the most beautiful arias ever written. At the centre of this confusing tragicomedy is a royal eccentric, Xerxes. The lovesick king and his level-headed brother Arsamene are as different as chalk and cheese. Arsamene always does what it right. Xerxes always wants what he can't get. He plans to build a huge bridge for his army so that they can conquer Europe, and win over his brother's beloved Romilda. But the king is already engaged to Amastre, a king's daughter who, disguised as a soldier, is secretly, and furiously, watching everything. Love, envy and jealousy, wrongly delivered letters and misleading promises lead to all sorts of confusion. In the end Xerxes is forced to accept that he cannot rule people's emotions. Might he find happiness again with his beloved plane tree?
Xerxes was one of Handel's last operas. It bears witness to the polished and virtuoso late style of the by then marked by illness composer. The unusual opening aria sung by Xerxes is not the only pointer to a new musical dramaturgy – there are no da capo arias, the switching between recitatives and arias is rapid and the opera takes on a dizzying tempo. Handel's late work is a vicious persiflage about the longings, doubts, quirks and (self)destructive megalomania of a ruler.
King Xerxes calms his soul by singing of his love for a plane tree. Elviro and Arsamene, Xerxes' brother, go to meet his beloved Romilda. When Xerxes sees Romilda he falls in love with her. He orders his brother to arrange his marriage to Romilda. Arsamene hesitates, so Xerxes decides to proclaim his love for her himself. Arsamene warns Romilda about Xerxes. She tries to comfort him, swearing to be true. Romilda's sister Atalanta declares that she loves Arsamene. He takes no notice of her at all. Xerxes asks Romilda to share the throne. Arsamene protests and is banished. To the frustration of the king, Romilda swears to remain faithful to her beloved. Amastre, daughter of the King of Tagor and disguised as a soldier, observes her fiancé Xerxes trying to woo Romilda. Amastre loves him and wants to win him back. Ariodate, Romilda and Atalanta's father, returns from victory at war. To reward him Xerxes promises that Romilda will marry a member of the royal family. Xerxes goes into raptures about his new love, without naming Romilda. Arsamene sends Elviro from exile with a letter to Romilda, asking for a secret meeting. Amastre swears to take revenge for Xerxes' infidelity. Atalanta tries everything to try and win the affections of Arsamene, her sister's intended. She suggests that Romilda marry Xerxes. But Romilda sees through her plan. Elviro has disguised himself as a flower seller to smuggle Arsamene's letter to Romilda. He meets Amastre (in soldier's clothes) and tells her about the Xerxes, Romilda, Arsamene love triangle. The abandoned woman gives up all hope. Atalanta persuades Elviro to hand over Arsamene's letter, telling him that Romilda has accepted the King's proposal. While Atalanta is reading the letter she is interrupted by Xerxes. Atalanta maintains that the letter was addressed to her and Arsamene only pretends to love Romilda. Xerxes is overjoyed and gives his blessing to Atalanta's marriage to Arsamene. Xerxes shows Romilda the letter. Although shaken, she swears to remain true to Arsamene. Xerxes storms off in fury. The bridge that Xerxes had built over the sea is officially opened. Arsamene has returned from exile. Xerxes promises him his beloved (he means Atalanta) and suggests a double wedding, but Arsamene only wants Romilda. The king tells Atalanta that Arsamene does not love her. INTERVAL Elviro gets drunk while looking for Arsamene and sees how the new bridge breaks up in a storm. Xerxes and Amastre bemoan their fates. Amastre almost gives herself away and hides. Xerxes tries a second time to win Romilda, but she is not to be persuaded. Amastre intervenes, wanting to save Romilda. The king has „him“ arrested, but Romilda makes sure that "he" is set free. Arsamene and Romilda ask Atalanta to explain her intrigues. The lovers are reconciled. Atalanta has no choice but to find a new man. Xerxes tries to talk Romilda round again. To gain time she appears to give in, on condition that her father Ariodate gives his blessing. Arsamene has heard everything and takes her to task. Romilda insists that she is innocent. Xerxes repeats his promise to Ariodate that Romilda will have a royal bridegroom. The delighted father believes that he means Arsamene. Romilda is resolute and rejects Xerxes again. He orders that Arsamene be killed. Romilda begs Amastre to warn Arsamene. In return Romilda is to give Amastre's declaration of love to Xerxes. Romilda warns her beloved that he is in danger. Arsamene does not trust her. They argue. In the midst of the wedding preparations Ariodate tells them of Xerxes' promise, according to which they are to marry. When Xerxes reveals the true identiy of the „royal bridegroom“ (he means himself), Ariodate explains to him that Romilda has just married Arsamene. After Xerxes receives Amastre's love letter he calls in desperation for the furies to help and orders Arsamene to kill Romilda. Amastre intervenes, reveals her true identity and threatens to kill Xerxes and then herself. Driven into a corner, Xerxes is remorseful and asks everyone to forgive him. Two couples are reunited: Romilda/Arsamene and Amastre/Xerxes. Atalanta is still searching. Peace at the royal court is restored.