Handel’s opera Serse is characterised by its ironic libretto, humorous situations, and high number of short arias.
The main character is the unpredictably obsessive and volatile King Xerxes, a historical character who ruled the Achemenid Empire from 486 BC to 465 BC. The plot concerning the rivalry between Xerxes and his brother, Arsamene, for Romilda, however, is entirely fictional, as is the King’s betrayal of his fiancé, Amastre.
The opera is based on a libretto adapted by the poet Silvio Stampiglia for Giovanni Bononcini, whose setting was staged at Rome’s Teatro di Torre Nona in 1694. Handel completed his opera in 1738 in little more than a month. However, his typically swift pace and resourceful treatment of musical themes and models should not be misconstrued as complacency, carelessness, or low imaginative powers. The autograph manuscript reveals that Handel invested considerable skill in arias that are perfectly tailored to the dramatic storyline, many of which were meticulously crafted and then redrafted.
The opera was premiered at The King’s Theatre on the Haymarket on 15 April 1738, but it only received five performances, which at the time ranked it as one of Handel’s worst commercial failures. The opera was not performed again until Oscar Hagen’s arrangement was staged at Göttingen in 1924, after which several productions in the USA and the UK followed. In recent times, the work has finally received the recognition it deserves, partly thanks to the uncut production, mounted at English National Opera to mark the composer’s 300th birthday in 1985.
Serse is here performed by the Early Opera Company under Christian Curnyn, who won a BBC Music Award in 2013 for its recording of Handel’s Alceste. They are joined on this recording by a host of excellent soloists including Rosemary Joshua in the role of Romilda, Anna Stéphany as Xerxes, David Daniels as Arsamene, and Hilary Summers as Amastre.