Handel’s Serse is the source of the well-known aria “ombra mai fu,” which is one of those selections that people often play at weddings, sometimes without knowing that the aria is about a tree. But context isn’t everything, I guess.
In this production of the opera, the tree – well, I don’t want to give the game away too soon but – oh, fuck it, I don’t care. THE TREE EXPLODES DURING ‘CRUDE FURIE DEGL’ORRIDI ABISSI.’ THIS IS THE BEST THING I HAVE SEEN IN WEEKS.
Also, Paula Rasmussen (Serse) sounds terrific here. But the tree. The tree is set on fire, and then it goes bang! You may scoff at this as profoundly unrealistic, but according to Wikipedia trees explode all the time. Think about that the next time you take a walk in the woods.
But let us be serious now. You might be wondering why there is a tree in this opera at all. Well! According to Herodotus and a few other ancient authors, when Serse/Xerxes was on his way to Lydia he was struck by the beauty of a plane tree at the side of the road and decorated it with gold. It is possible to explain why Xerxes was on his way to Lydia, but I am not going to do it. It doesn’t matter, anyway, because this opera is about a series of love triangles and none of them involve any Lydians. The tree is there as a kind of stand-in for Serse’s folly and arrogance, and soon after it has been detonated he comes to his senses and everything works out.
It’s like this. Serse’s brother Arsamene is in love with Romilda. Romilda, who loves Arsamene in return, is the daughter of Serse’s general Ariodate. (Not Ariodante. On the offchance, I fished my copy of Orlando Furioso out from under the couch, and I am prepared to swear that Ariodante never worked for Xerxes.) Ariodate has another daughter, Atalanta. Atalanta is also in love with Arsamene, but he doesn’t love her back. There is also Amastre – who actually is attested in Herodotus as Xerxes’s wife – but who at this point is not yet married to him. She turns up disguised as a young man, Bradamante-style, angry at Serse for deserting her. It’s a Handel opera, so you know it all sort of works itself out in the end.
We don’t hear much about the famous bridge across the Hellespont here, either. If you haven’t heard the story, Xerxes was on his way into Europe from Asia for an invasion – Xerxes was Persian, and the Persians and the Greeks were like the Hatfields and the McCoys of the classical world – and he built a bridge across the Hellespont. The wind and waves tore the bridge apart, though, and Xerxes was so angry that he had the Hellespont whipped. Literally beaten, with whips. The bridge makes a brief appearance in this production in Act II in the form of a scale model which Arsamene’s servant Elviro accidentally breaks – like the tree, I think it’s there as a way of signifying that Serse’s plans are unrealistic.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
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