Xerxes, the opera
First performed in London, in 1738
By Cyrus Kadivar
March 14, 2000
Romilda's aria sung to Xerxes: "False Love Dies Unlamented -
it is not worth possession."
To most people the name Xerxes equates to the ancient king who ruled
Persia (486-465 BC). In Greek history, Herodotus refers to the Persian
king as the "tyrant" who bridged the Hellespont, captured Athens,
then watched his Aegean fleet destroyed in a storm.
There is an echo of this incident in Byron's famous poem describing
the "Great King" seated on the base of Mount Aegaleos watching
his ships sinking at Salamis.
That's the history bit. But how many people know of Xerxes, the opera?
Xerxes (Serse) was first performed at the King's Theatre, Haymarket,
London, in 1738. It was based on an earlier Venetian opera of the same
name, performed in 1645 and composed by Cavalli.
In 1988 Nicholas Hytner's highly innovative production of Handel's comic
opera was performed at the English National Opera (ENO) winning the coveted
Laurence Olivier Opera Award.
Divided into three acts and starring Ann Murray as Xerxes, who falls
in love with Romilda (sung by Valerie Masterson), the opera is filled with
a series of funny and enjoyable scenes.
When I first went to see Xerxes I had not expected to see such a stunning
and elegant series of curious and absorbing images. In the ENO production,
the director, and David Fielding, the designer, set the action in an 18th-century
vision of Ancient Persia. The result was an elegant set in which huge props
(such as a winged Assyrian bull or a griffin) made welcome if slightly
Furthermore, though the characters were supposed to be Ancient Persians,
their behavior was distinctly British; indeed, as Sarah Lenton, the author
of "Backstage at the Opera", observed, "the inhibitions
and levels of embarrassment on stage made it quite clear that, for this
show at least, 'Persian' and 'British' were synonymous".
Perhaps, the most impressive aspect of the opera for me was a faithful
reproduction of a small-scale Persepolis in the background juxtaposed with
actors strutting around in Versailles - like court uniforms and wigs, sitting
in deck-chairs and waving umbrellas as bald gardeners trimmed the hedges
in the palace grounds.
I hope they will show it again. This time I'll make sure I listen to