Serse is considered Handel's most Mozartian opera. Passion is mixed with farce and satire; the folly of human nature is exposed but never ridiculed. The opera is set in Persia in 480 B.C., though there is little in either the libretto or music that is relevant to that setting.
Unfortunately, in spite of the great beauty of music, "Serse" was not a success. It was withdrawn from London's Haymarket Theater after only five performances and forgotten for two hundred and fifty years.
It was revived in the 1980s and is slowly becoming part of the standard operatic repertoire. A complete recording of it was made in 1979.
Xerxes is a pants role: that is, it is a male role played by a soprano.
The opening aria, Ombra mai fù, a love song sung by Xerxes to a tree, is Handel's best-known melodic structure.
King Xerxes is determined to wed Romilda; Romilda loves Xerxes' brother, Arsamene; Arsamene loves Romilda. Romilda's sister Atalanta is determined to make Arsamene hers.
Xerxes banishes Arsamene, who sends a note to Romilda through his servant Elviro, disguised as a flower vendor, pledging his eternal fidelity, but it is delivered instead to Atalanta, who shows it to her sister claiming that it was addressed to Atalanta. Arsamene and Romilda fight.
Xerxes pursues Romilda, and tells her father Ariodate that Romilda must wed, by the king's command, a member of Xerxe's family, equal in blood to himself. Ariodante mistakenly thinks he is referring to his brother Arsamene rather than himself.
Amastre, Xerxes' fiancée, forsaken by him for Romilda, disguises herself as a man and observes Xerxes. After Arsamene and Romilda wed, Amastre reveals herself to Xerxes, who becomes ashamed of his faithlessness. Amastre accepts his apology.