A-Z April 2015

X is for Xerxes

Yes, we made it to X! Just two more letters to go and then dear reader, I will give you a little break from my mumblings and ramblings on this here blog thing. Today’s entry for the Blogging from A-Z Challenge is about “Xerxes”.

Xerxes is an 18th Century opera seria in three acts composed by George Frederic Handel (music) and Silvio Stampiglia (libretto) based on a previous work by Giovanni Bononcini and Nicolo Minato. It is a complicated love story – aren’t they all? – set in Persia and is loosely based on the life of Xerxes I who lived about 500 years before the birth of Christ.

What makes Handel’s work interesting for me is that the role of Xerxes was originally written for and sung by a castrato, a man so dedicated to his singing life that he would have volunteered to be castrated as a pre-teen to preserve his treble voice as an adult. The resulting sound of the castrato voice was breathtakingly ethereal and it was highly valued. The purity of a boy-treble combined with the musicality and expression of an adult musician was astonishing, but it was a massive sacrifice to make and the practice eventually died out, leaving the part now sung by either a counter-tenor, a contralto or a mezzo-soprano singer.

The storyline is roughly along the line that the King, Xerxes, is in love with the daughter of one of his servants and wants to marry her but she is already in love with his brother. From that tangled starting point the story weaves through lies, betrayals, misunderstandings, impersonations and outright villainy until in the end nobody ends up with who they want to and they all die miserable and alone.

They don’t really die alone and miserable, but they may as well do! At least in this opera there was originally some light relief with the inclusion of a comedy role (buffa) created by Handel but the audience at the first showing did not understand it. As this opera was billed as an “opera seria”, which means a serious opera, a melodrama, they didn’t expect a comic aspect to it and so reacted badly at the premiere in the King’s Theatre, Haymarket in London. They also did not like the way Handel had played around the genre of opera seria by writing shorter but more numerous arias than was expected. Critics panned it and the work was shelved for nearly 200 years until it was revived in 1924 and performed in Göttingen. Modern audiences liked the mix of tragedy and comedy, and the shorter arias that the original audience hated so much and it has gone on to be performed many more times around Europe.

The most well-known music from the opera is the “Largo”. The following video is the London Symphony Orchestra playing it and even though you may not recognise the title, I am certain you will recognise the music when it plays.

So there we have it. X is for Xerxes. Thank you Mr Handel for helping me out today!




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