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A short sortie into the plot of Xerxes brings home how little entertainment has changed over the centuries. Today, we can’t get enough of our costume dramas replete with steamy characters, set against backdrops of ancient intrigues.
It’s true that these are historical in nature, but, essentially they are just soap opera plots that have been re-set in the past.
Well, Xerxes follows pretty much the same formula. it focuses on a particular supposedly accurate point in the life of the Persian King Xerxes I (who lived from 485 BC to 465 BC). Indeed, it contains one or two other moments that are said to be true. But, beyond them, Handel allows his librettist to suspend time, and to engage in a largely invented gossipy plot. The music, though, is simply divine, especially if one is hearing a version using the original idea of Xerxes as a counter-tenor, rather than the female voice so often used today. In one of the stranger beginnings to an opera, Xerxes sings the famous opening aria ‘Ombra mai fù’ to a shade-giving tree. It’s a beautiful tune, which is known as the Largo in its orchestral arrangement, even though it is, in fact, marked on the score as larghetto.
Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano) as Xerxes; Lesley Garrett (soprano) as Atalanta; Valerie Masterson (soprano) as Romilda; Christopher Robson (counter-tenor) as Arsamenes; Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano) as Amastris; Christopher Booth-Jones (baritone) as Elviro; Rodney Macann (bass-baritone) as Ariodates; Orchestra and chorus of English national Opera; Charles Mackerras (conductor). Arthaus Musik (DVD); 100076.