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An opera seria with comedic elements in three acts by George Frideric Handel, Xerxes' premiere took place at the King's Theatre in London on the 15th of April 1738. The opera explores the chaotic world of love, loyalty, and betrayal within the Persian royal court. King Xerxes' capricious desires take centre stage as he becomes enamoured with Romilda, the daughter of his loyal general, Ariodate. This throws a wrench into the existing romance between Romilda and Xerxes' own brother, Arsamenes. Further complicating matters is Amastre, a princess betrothed to Xerxes. Disguised as a soldier, she remains close to the king despite his wandering affections. As the opera unfolds, its characters grapple with conflicting emotions – Xerxes' fleeting desires clash with Arsamenes' unwavering devotion, while Amastre struggles between her duty and her love for the fickle king. Political manoeuvring and disguised identities add to the complexity, with characters resorting to trickery and deception in their pursuit of love or self-preservation. Ultimately, Xerxes must navigate the consequences of his actions, reconcile his personal desires with his responsibilities as king, and find a resolution that satisfies all parties involved. The opera is built on a series of arias, duets, and elaborate ensembles with a continuo (harpsichord and cello) providing harmonic support. Handel employs a variety of musical styles, including Italianate da capo arias with contrasting sections, lively dance movements, and powerful choruses. The libretto used by Handel was adapted by an unknown author from the work of Silvio Stampiglia, Il Xerse, written for an opera of the same name by Giovanni Bononcini in 1694. Stampiglia himself based his libretto on an even older one by Nicolò Minato, used for Francesco Cavalli's Xerxe in 1654. While the core story elements may have remained consistent, adaptations over time likely reflected changing theatrical styles and audience preferences. The opera garnered mixed reviews after its 1738 premiere. Some critics praised the opera's virtuosic music and lively characters, while others found the plot convoluted and the humour uneven. The opera's popularity waned in the following decades, but it has seen a resurgence in recent times.

The Opera



Voice Type

Premiere Cast


King of Persia

(originally castrato)

Caffarelli (Gaetano Majorano)


Xerxe's brother, in love with Romilda


Maria Antonia Marchesini


heiress to the kingdom of Tagor, and promised to Xerxes


Antonia Merighi


daughter of Ariodates, in love with Arsamenes


Elisabeth Duparc


daughter of Ariodates, secretly in love with Arsamenes


Margherita Chimenti


A prince and commander of Xerxes' army


Antonio Montagnana


servant to Arsamenes


Antonio Lottini

Chorus of soldiers, sailors, priests

Persia, 480 BC.
Acts and Scenes
Act I Role
Scene I
1 Accompanied Recitative 'Frondi tenere' Xerxes
2 Arioso 'Ombra mai fu' Xerxes
Scene II
1 Recitative 'Siam giunti, Elviro' Elviro
2 Symphony and Recitative 'Sento un soave concento' Arsamenes, Elviro
3 Arioso and Recitative 'O voi, che penate!' Romilda, Arsamenes, Elviro
Scene III
1 Recitative 'Arsamene! Mio Sire!' Xerxes, Arsamenes
2 Aria 'Va godendo vezzoso e bello' Romilda
3 Recitative 'Quel canto a un bel amor' Xerxes, Arsamenes
4 Aria 'Io le dirò che l'amo' / 'Tu le dirai che l'ami' Xerxes, Arsamenes
Scene IV
1 Recitative 'Arsamene! Romilda, oh Dei!' Romilda, Arsamenes, Atalanta
2 Aria 'Sì, sì, mio ben, sì, sì' Atalanta
3 Recitative 'Presto, signor' Elviro, Arsamenes
Scene V
1 Recitative 'Come, qui, Principessa' Xerxes, Romilda, Arsamenes, Elviro
2 Aria 'Meglio in voi col mio partire' Arsamenes
Scene VI
1 Recitative 'Bellissima Romilda' Xerxes
2 Aria 'Di tacere e di schernirmi' Xerxes
Scene VII
1 Recitative 'Aspide sono a’ detti tuoi' Romilda
2 Aria 'Nemmen coll'ombre' Romilda
Scene VIII
1 Aria 'Se cangio spoglia' Amastres
Scene IX
1 Recitative 'Pugnammo, amici' Ariodates, Amastres
2 Chorus of Soldiers 'Già la tromba, che chiamò' soldiers
Scene X
1 Recitative 'Ecco Serse, o che volto' Amastres, Xerxes, Ariodates
2 Aria 'Soggetto al mio volere' Ariodates
3 Chorus of the Soldiers 'Già la tromba, che chiamò' soldiers
Scene XI
1 Recitative 'Queste vittorie io credo' Xerxes, Amastres
2 Aria 'Più che penso alle fiamme' Xerxes
Scene XII
1 Recitative 'Eccoti il foglio, Elviro' Arsamenes, Elviro
2 Arietta 'Signor, signor, lasciate fare a me' Elviro
3 Aria 'Non so se sia la speme' Arsamenes
Scene XIII
1 Recitative 'Tradir di reggia sposa' Amastres
2 Aria 'Saprà delle mie offese' Amastres
Scene XIV
1 Recitative 'Alfin sarete sposa' Atalanta, Romilda
2 Aria 'Se l'idol mio rapir mi vuoi' Romilda
Scene XV
1 Recitative 'Per rapir quel tesoro' Atalanta
2 Aria 'Un cenno leggiadretto' Atalanta
Act II Role
Scene I
1 Arioso 'Speranze mie fermate' Amastres
2 Arietta 'Ah, chi voler fiora' Elviro
3 Recitative 'E chi direbbe mai' Elviro, Amastres
4 Aria 'Or che siete, speranze, tradite' Amastres
Scene II
1 Recitative 'Quel curioso è partito' Elviro
2 Arioso 'A piangere ogn’ora' Atalanta
3 Arietta 'Ah! Tigre infedele!' Elviro
4 Recitative 'Parti, il re s'avvicina' Atalanta, Elviro
Scene III
1 Recitative 'Con questo foglio' Atalanta
2 Arioso 'È tormento troppo fiero' Xerxes
3 Recitative 'Di quel foglio, Atalanta' Xerxes, Atalanta
4 Aria 'Dirà, che amor per me' Atalanta
5 Recitative 'Voi quel foglio lasciate a me' Xerxes, Atalanta
6 Aria 'Dirà, che non m'amò' Atalanta
Scene IV
1 Recitative 'Ingannata Romilda!' Xerxes, Romilda
2 Duet 'L'amerete?' - 'L'amerò.' Xerxes, Romilda
3 Aria 'Se bramate d'amar chi vi sdegna' Xerxes
Scene V
1 Accompanied Recitative 'L'amerò? Non fia vero.' Romilda
2 Aria 'È Gelosia quella tiranna' Romilda
Scene VI
1 Recitative 'Giacché il duol non m'uccide' Amastres, Elviro
2 Aria 'Anima infida, tradita io sono' Amastres
Scene VII
1 Recitative 'È pazzo affé!' Elviro, Arsamenes
2 Aria 'Quella che tutta fé' Arsamenes
Scene VIII
1 Chorus of Sailors 'La virtute sol potea' sailors
2 Recitative 'Ariodate! Signore' Xerxes, Ariodates
3 Chorus of Sailors 'La virtute sol potea' sailors
Scene IX
1 Arioso 'Per dar fine alla mia pena' Arsamenes
2 Recitative 'Arsamene, ove andate?' Xerxes, Arsamenes
3 Aria 'Sì, la voglio e la otterrò!' Arsamenes
Scene X
1 Recitative 'V'inchino, eccelso Rè' Atalanta, Xerxes
2 Aria 'Voi mi dite che non l'ami' Atalanta
3 Recitative 'Saria lieve ogni doglia' Xerxes
4 Aria 'Il core spera e teme' Xerxes
Scene XI
1 Recitative 'Me infelice' Elviro
2 Arietta 'Del mio caro Bacco amabile' Elviro
Scene XII
1 Duet 'Gran pena è gelosia!' Xerxes, Amastres
2 Recitative 'Aspra sorte!' Xerxes, Amastres
Scene XIII
1 Recitative 'Romilda, e sarà ver' Xerxes
2 Arietta 'Val più contento core' Romilda
3 Recitative 'Vuò ch’abbian fine' Xerxes, Romilda
Scene XIV
1 Recitative 'La fortuna, la vita' Amastres, Romilda
2 Aria 'Chi cede al furore' Romilda
Act III Role
Scene I
1 Recitative 'Sono vani i pretesti' Arsamenes, Romilda
Scene II
1 Recitative 'Ahi! Scoperto è l’inganno!' Atalanta, Elviro, Arsamenes
2 Arietta 'No, no, se tu mi sprezzi' Atalanta
Scene III
1 Recitative 'Ecco in segno di fé' Romilda, Elviro, Arsamenes, Xerxes
2 Aria 'Per rendermi beato' Xerxes
Scene IV
1 Recitative 'Ubbidirò al mio re?' Arsamenes, Romilda
2 Aria 'Amor, tiranno Amor' Arsamenes
Scene V
1 Recitative 'Come già vi accennammo' Xerxes, Ariodates
2 Aria 'Dal ciel d'amore' Ariodates
Scene VI
1 Recitative 'Il suo serto rifiuto!' Romilda
Scene VII
1 Recitative 'Fermatevi, mia sposa' Xerxes, Romilda
Scene VIII
1 Recitative 'Prode guerrier' Romilda, Amastres
2 Aria 'Cagion son io del mio dolore' Amastres
Scene IX
1 Recitative 'Romilda infida' Arsamenes, Romilda
2 Duet 'Troppo oltraggi la mia fede' Romilda, Arsamenes
Scene X
1 Chorus of Priests 'Ciò che Giove destinò' priests
2 Recitative 'Ecco lo sposo!' Ariodates, Arsamenes, Romilda
3 Chorus of Ministers 'Chi infelice si trovò' ministers
Scene XI
1 Recitative 'Se ne viene Ariodate' Xerxes, Ariodates
2 Aria 'Crude Furie degl'orridi abissi' Xerxes
Final Scene
1 Recitative 'Perfidi! E ancor osate' Xerxes, Ariodates, Arsamenes, Romilda
2 Aria 'Caro voi siete all'alma' Romilda
3 Chorus 'Ritorna a noi la calma' all

1. Thomas Bauman, Marita Petzoldt McClymonds, eds. Opera and the Enlightenment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.
2. George Frideric Handel, Serse [DVD]. Rasmussen, Hallenberg, Bardon, Bayrakdarian, Piau et al, Les Talens Lyriques, conducted by Christophe Rousset, recorded 2000, TDK EuroArts DV-OPSER, 2005.
3. George Frideric Handel, Serse [CD]. von Otter, Norberg-Schulz, Piau, Zazzo, Santafé et al, Les Arts Florissants Chœurs et Orchestre, conducted by William Christie, recorded 2004, Virgin Classics, 2010.

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