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Xerxes, the opera
First performed in London, in 1738

By Cyrus Kadivar
March 14, 2000
The Iranian

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?

In fact, Handel's 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 baffling appearances.

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 the music.

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