"Ombra mai fu" from Serse
George Frideric Handel
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) started his career in 1702 as a church organist in the central European city of Halle, but a visit to Berlin sometime before that (his first biographer, John Mainwaring, dates the visit to 1698, arbitrarily it seems) introduced the composer to opera, the pursuit that would dominate four decades of his professional life. On February 24, 1711, Handel's first opera for London, Rinaldo, opened at the Queen's (King's after George I's accession in 1714) Theatre in the Haymarket. Rinaldo was the first Italian opera composed specifically for the London stage, to a libretto by the theater's librettist, Giacomo Rossi, based on the story of the crusader-knight Rinaldo and the sorceress-queen Armida from Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Liberated). Handel composed the work in a mere two weeks, partly by raiding many of his earlier scores - fifteen of the arias come from operas and oratorios he had written for Hamburg and Italy - but for his leading man, the castrato Nicolini, Handel composed only new music. The aria "Cara sposa," Rinaldo's lament over his lost love Almirena, who has been kidnapped by Armida, adds an emotional depth to a character that otherwise would run the risk of coming off as a two-dimensional hero. The minor key, the rich, contrapuntal string part, and Handel's use of chromaticism all reflect the sense of loss and longing in the text.
The other two arias on tonight's program come from much later in Handel's operatic career, when his fortunes in London had begun to change. Competition between operatic troupes (itself tied to perpetual infighting between the George II and the Prince of Wales), a dwindling audience for opera, and Handel's new-found success as a composer of English-language oratorios all contributed to this decline. Handel premiered his last opera in 1741.
Heard side-by-side, Giustino and Serse show Handel striking out in interesting new directions even as his operatic career was drawing to a close. Handel infuses the heroic dimension of many of his earlier works, Rinaldo included, with new life in Giustino, partly by breaking up the stream of arias characteristic of those earlier works with several choruses, a technique borrowed from oratorio. The aria "Se parla nel mio cor" comes from Act I of the opera, as Giustino (Justin, a peasant who rose through the ranks to command the armies of the Eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius and eventually succeeded him in 518 A.D.) heads off to battle against the rebel Vitalian. This is just the first of his many heroic deeds over the opera's course, during which Justin rescues one woman from a bear and another from a sea monster. Serse, on the other hand, is remarkably anti-heroic, a wholly comic opera with an undercurrent of satire. We meet Serse (again, like Justin, a historical figure, in this case, Xerxes, King of Persia, whose defeat by the Greeks at the Battle of Salamis Herodotus describes in his Histories) in his introductory aria "Ombra mai fu," probably the most famous number from any of Handel's operas. The aria's rarefied atmosphere is meant ironically, as Xerxes sings of his profound, heartfelt love not for a woman, but for a tree.
- John Mangum holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. He is the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Program Designer/ Annotator.