Music by George Frideric Handel

Libretto by Anonymous revision of Silvio Stampiglia’s libretto 'Il Xerse,' based on Nicolo Minato’s 'Il Xerse'

Widely acclaimed as one of the greatest Handel productions of our time, this visually stunning Olivier Award–winning staging by famed film and theater director Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George) is the perfect introduction to this Baroque-era masterpiece. Clever comedy is intertwined with tender poignancy in a tale of unrequited love and intrigue at a royal court. Patrick Summers, who conducts Handel with “astounding depth, virtuosity and clarity” (San Francisco Chronicle), leads an outstanding cast featuring Susan Graham, who “does spellbinding justice to Handel’s heavenly music” (The Wall Street Journal), and David Daniels, “the most acclaimed countertenor of the day, perhaps the best ever” (The New York Times).

Production contains use of strobe lighting.

Sung in Italian with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 3 hours, 40 minutes including two intermissions

National Opera production

Production photos: David Daniels and Susan Graham in English National Opera production of Xerxes by Felix Sanchez/Houston Grand Opera
All other production photos: Cory Weaver

Audio credits: Audio excerpt of "Ombra mai fu" is from the Capriccio Digital recording of Xerxes with the Kammerorchester C.P.E. Bach conducted by Hartmut Hänchen (Capriccio Digital 10-213). All other audio excerpts are from the Virgin Veritas recording of Xerxes with the Les Arts Florissant Orchestra and Chorus conducted by William Christie (Virgin Veritas 7243-5 4571121)


Xerxes Susan Graham
Romilda Lisette Oropesa *
Arsamenes David Daniels
Atalanta Heidi Stober
Amastris Sonia Prina
Ariodates Wayne Tigges *
Elviro Michael Sumuel

Production Credits

Conductor Patrick Summers
Production Nicholas Hytner *
Revival Director Michael Walling *
Production Designer David Fielding
Lighting Designer Paul Pyant
Chorus Director Ian Robertson

* San Francisco Opera Debut


Xerxes, the King of Persia, contemplates the beauties of a tree in his garden. He is enchanted by the singing of Romilda, daughter of his army Commander Ariodates, and tells his brother Arsamenes to inform the lady of his admiration for her. Arsamenes and Romilda are already in lovewith each other, so he refuses to help. Xerxes resolves to do his own wooing.  
     Arsamenes warns Romilda of his brother’s passion. Romilda’s sister, Atalanta, also secretly lovesArsamenes and decides to encourage the King. When Xerxes finds his overtures rejected by Romilda, he banishes Arsamenes.  
Meanwhile Amastris, a foreign princess betrothed to Xerxes and unable to bear her separation from him, arrives. Because she has come alone without her father’s knowledge, she has travelled disguised as a soldier in Xerxes’s army. She watches him receive Ariodates and his army back from a successful campaign. The King announces that he will reward Ariodates by arranging a match for Romilda with one of his own family. Amastris then overhears him talk about his new passion, and she does not reveal who she is; later, she swears revenge.
Arsamenes sends his servant Elviro to Romilda with a letter. Although Atalanta fails to persuade Romilda that Arsamenes is unfaithful, she decides to persevere in her attempt to win his love.

Elviro, disguised as a flower-seller, tells Amastris about Xerxes’s passion for Romilda; he then delivers Arsamenes’s letter to Atalanta, who promises to pass it on to Romilda; Atalanta tells him that her sister has succumbed to Xerxes’s proposals. She then gives the letter to Xerxes, persuading him that Arsamenes wrote it to her, and that Arsamenes is only pretending to be in lovewith Romilda because he is really in lovewith her.
Xerxes shows the letter to Romilda, who seems convinced that it is indeed meant for Atalanta; yet she continues to reject his advances. Amastris attempts suicide, but Elviro restrains her. Elviro tells Arsamenes what Atalanta told him­that Romilda has yielded to the King.
     Xerxes unveils the Bridge to Europe, which has been built to facilitate an armed invasion. Turning to more pressing concerns, he finds.Arsamenes and tells him that he knows now of his real lovefor Atalanta. Arsamenes reasserts his lovefor Romilda. Amastris watches Xerxes attempt to seduce Romilda once again. She intervenes, and is only savedfrom arrest when Romilda persuades Xerxes’s guard to release her. Romilda swears loyalty to Arsamenes.

Romilda and Arsamenes discover that Atalanta has been scheming to separate them. Atalanta admits defeat. Arsamenes hides as Xerxes makes his most threatening advances so far. In terror, Romilda agrees to marry him if her father consents. Xerxes leaves to find Ariodates, and Arsamenes turns furiously on Romilda.
     Xerxes gains Ariodates’s consent for Romilda’s marriage to a man of his own kin: he still does not reveal that he has himself in mind, preferring to marry her before any discussion about her lack of royal blood can occur. Ariodates assumes Romilda’s intended is Arsamenes.
     When Xerxes returns to claim Romilda, she arouses his suspicions of her own virtue.Xerxes furiously orders his brother’s death; Romilda tries to warn Arsamenes of the danger he faces, but he prefers to believe she is trying to get rid of him. 
     Ariodates waits for the bride and bridegroom, and, when Romilda and Arsamenes arrive, still arguing fiercely, he hurries them off to be married. Xerxes appears just in time to be told that they are man and wife. When he commands Arsamenes to kill Romilda, Amastris steps forward and reveals who she is. She forgives him for his infidelity, and he has no alternative but to agree to marry her.

From Heavenly Harmony

Patrick Summers

San Francisco Opera's principal guest conductor discusses Handel's masterpiece

Inexplicable things happen to me in London. Several years ago I made an early morning visit to Westminster Abbey, that great reliquary of historical memory, and found it almost empty and utterly silent, a rare state for one of the world’s great tourist magnets. I intended to spend a few quiet moments at the memorial stone of my favorite composer, George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), the great German-born composer, Italian-trained, and rightly claimed by England as their own.

I found the famous frieze of Handel ensconced amidst the fitting company of Shakespeare, Longfellow, and Tennyson, and I sat quietly in the ancient coolness of Poet’s Corner. After a good deal of time I heard distant music, indistinct in the vastness of the space. With the Abbey’s busy schedule of performances, I naturally assumed it was a rehearsal. As I moved towards the exit the music gained clarity; it was, to my delight, Handel’s Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day. Definitely a rehearsal, I thought. I could see no musicians, but this was no surprise, given the vastness of the church. I sat down again to enjoy Handel’s extraordinary work, and to ruminate on how elegantly this ancient space coexisted with the modern city around it.

Unlike Handel’s London audience, who clamored hungrily for new music and new stories, modern opera audiences largely dwell in the past. Happily, over the last forty to fifty years, the musical authenticity movement has taught us innumerable lessons about Handel’s prodigious musical output, much of which had sat unperformed from his time to ours. Handel, one of history’s great men of the theater, was for too many years known solely as the composer of one work, his sublime Messiah—itself a work created for theatrical performance, which somewhat belies its sacred image. As Handel often led his own performances from the keyboard— for the non-playing but gesticulating conductor was still in the future—he could easily communicate his intentions directly to his fellow performers; it is therefore not surprising that a type of musical shorthand developed between composer and performer, and many important ideas did not need to be written down.

It is thanks to the pioneers of the authenticity movement—Charles Mackerras, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington, San Francisco’s own Nicholas McGegan, and so many others—that we can now be more confident in interpreting not only what Handel wrote but also, much more importantly, the clear inferences of what he didn’t. For the post-Mahlerian musical world, when the written musical text became something of a deity, to improvise or reinterpret anything a composer wrote became a definite moral conundrum. But Handel’s shorthand makes complete sense if one applies common sense: many rhythmically repeated figures, “repeated ratios” in Baroque architecture, should actually be played unevenly, which creates sonic curves where there are written straight lines. Some, but not all, dotted figures are played in a double-dotted fashion, creating an angular rhythmic pattern—sonic symmetry. Tempo markings in the Baroque indicate mood, or “affect,” as often as they indicate speed, for Baroque music is never divorced from the inflections and contours of human speech. We have also learned much about the size of Handel’s orchestras, which varied greatly, and modern performances must take into account a space the size of San Francisco’s War Memorial, truly huge in comparison with any Handel might have known, but with such a warm and clear acoustic that Handel operas can work beautifully in it. We have learned that the dynamic range of instruments in Handel’s day was not as polarized as our own. We have gained profound insight into Baroque string playing: most players today understand that trying to impose a “continuous melody” long bow stroke in Baroque music is unstylish, yet even twenty-five years ago this was not an accepted idea. A shorter elegant stroke of the bow, a satisfaction in making small musical shapes, supports Handel's melodic structure and his sensuous sequences of tension and release. Baroque bows were of much lighter weight and more balanced than their modern equivalents. Handel’s music is bass line driven (he usually wrote the lowest notes first), and one of the most rewarding discoveries of the period instrument movement is how the lowest instruments—cellos, basses, and bassoons—can inflect a bass line precisely as an actor inflects a sentence, and bring an aria to vivid life.

But undoubtedly the most important stylistic aspect of Handelian operatic performance is the issue of vocal ornamentation. The great singers of Handel’s day, largely Italians, personalized their arias to a degree almost unimaginable today, and only comparable in our time to the great jazz singers who took standard ballads and improvised them in their own style. Even a great composer like Handel fully understood and expected this, though naturally there were degrees of decorative taste then as now. One of the great effects of the Handelian renaissance of the past decades has been that we are now in the second generation of singers who are both schooled and gifted at Handelian ornamentation. Our own cast, led by Susan Graham and David Daniels, both experienced Baroque singers, can improvise in ways which truly honor their distinguished colleagues of more than two centuries ago.

So, we have learned a great deal about Handel of late, but one dilemma remains: We can never hope to recreate the expectations and experiences of an audience hearing Handel’s operas as contemporary music. Today’s opera audiences arrive at a Baroque opera with a host of associations about opera that obviously didn’t exist when these works were written. Eighteenth-century audiences did not sit politely in a darkened theater. The house lights (candles, of course) remained illumined throughout the performance to facilitate glances at the translated Italian libretto. Eating, drinking, and talking were rampant, though I doubt even a liberal eighteenth-century audience could have tolerated modern cellular phones. One does not want to even contemplate the intermission search or use of a restroom in eighteenth-century London. The private boxes were home to an abundant array of behaviors, from commercial dealings to some slightly older pleasures. So it is important that we honor Handel not by imprisoning him with immutable dogma or academia, but by utilizing our knowledge of his time to create something new and relevant in the context of a busy and modern opera house. This is the genius of Nicholas Hytner’s production: Precisely as Handel did himself, he allows the ancient to inform the modern, for we are most definitely in three different worlds when viewing a Baroque opera. We are in the time of the opera’s composition; we are in the historical time of the characters, which is inevitably much older (Xerxes’s libretto dates from the early seventeenth-century, almost a century before Handel wrote his opera); and most importantly, we are viewing the work through the prism of our own lives and experiences here in the twenty-first century.

On the surface, Handel’s music falls pleasantly upon the ear, but a deeper exploration of his many London masterpieces—Radamisto, Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, Alcina, and the opera closest at hand, one of his last, his exquisite Xerxes from 1738, very loosely based on the life of the Persian King Xerxes the Great—reveals a complex and profoundly dramatic composer, a musician who deserves a vaulted place in the operatic cannon alongside a cherished few: Monteverdi, Gluck, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Janáček, Puccini, and Britten. Handel’s music changes stock characters into figures of Shakespearian depth, all while ravishing our ears with dazzling melodic invention. Each of the London operas is long by modern standards, but they are so filled with a diverse and eclectic range of musical works that they are not dull to an attentive and absorbent listener. Handel’s writing for the human voice is surpassed only by Mozart (ask any singer). Mozart emulated Handel, even going so far as to reorchestrate his Messiah (with
clarinets!) and Acis and Galatea, a beautiful act of homage from one genius to another. On his deathbed, Beethoven supposedly pointed to the complete edition of Handel's works and uttered something like, “there lies the truth.”

Handel’s Xerxes, which enters the historic repertoire of San Francisco Opera for the first time this season, is an anomaly among Handel’s London operas. It is his only comedy, though to describe the complexity of Xerxes with only one word, “comedy,” is to seriously understate its delights. Xerxes is a serious comedy, a complex domestic love quadrangle with comic elements that veer into madness and rage and traffics in the most extreme emotions. It is an Enlightenment masterpiece, touching on intellectual textures only dreamt of in other operas. The score of Xerxes is one of Handel’s thorough masterpieces, filled with such a huge range of styles and emotions, an opera that is more dramatically complex than any of its peer works (just try to explain its plot to anyone!), and it has the distinction of having the most famous opening aria of any opera ever written, “Ombra mai fu”—erroneously known for centuries as Handel's “Largo,” even though it is clearly marked the decidedly less slow “Larghetto.” It sets the course of the evening perfectly, for despite its semi-divine reputation, it is actually a love song that Xerxes sings, with an ardency reserved only for very young men, to a tree. In Xerxes, we hear Handel boldly experimenting with new forms: the endless parade of A-B-A structured arias is gone. We hear truncated thoughts, arias, and symphonies interrupted by recitatives, short choruses, and ensembles, so rare in Baroque opera.

If there is an obstacle for modern audiences in appreciating Baroque opera, it tends to involve the organization of the narrative, the plot. Unlike later popular operas, which attempted to portray realistic situations, or many modern operas, which attempt to imitate movies, Baroque operas purposefully evade reality. Allegory and emotional abstraction are the most direct route to the supremely desired goal of Baroque composers: emotional reality. Some still criticize Baroque arias for “stopping the action,” perhaps not realizing that they are specifically designed to do exactly that. Handel’s arias are a matrix through which the emotion of the characters is dissected and experienced. David Daniels, one of the most experienced Handelian singers in history, described to me his attraction to Handel, “it is the deep humanity of how he dramatizes characters; it is Greek, basic, very real. There is an emotional inner life to these people that one simply doesn’t find in many other composers.” Fascinatingly, the leading countertenor of our day listed to me the three composers he thought the most profound, in order of his preference: Wagner, Handel, and Janáček.
It is inaccurate and dishonest to label Handel’s music repetitious. Precisely like the heightened emotions it expresses, his music does not so much repeat as it continues. For maximum enjoyment, surrender your investment in narrative reality; it doesn’t need to have happened to you to be real for someone else. Handel evokes more than he portrays, so you will be more able to experience Handel’s golden balance of emotion and intellect if you do not spend the evening glued to the supertitles; his music and his characters dwell most often in a sphere beyond words. Baroque music correlates to that moment of possibility presented in the bouquet of a newly opened wine, rather than to the feeling of the bottle being emptied. Handel incites the imagination, but he never tells you what to feel. He is the musical compatriot of the great Baroque architects: your presence is required to complete the work of art they began.

I often think back to that early morning in Westminster Abbey and wonder if I actually heard what I thought I heard. In the passing years I find myself choosing to overlook the more logical explanations, preferring to imagine something more eternal, perhaps even supernatural. I love the thought that Handel’s music might always be there waiting to be heard, and that I just intersected with it in the Abbey at the right moment. I recall the choir intoning John Dryden’s great words, the same words carved on Handel’s memorial stone, “From harmony, from heavenly harmony, this universal frame began,” just before I found myself outside in modern London, hailing a cab.
Patrick Summers currently serves as Artistic and Music Director for Houston Grand Opera. The Merola Opera Program alumnus is also a regular guest with the world’s preeminent opera companies, and he recently led our production of Heart of a Soldier this September—his third world premiere with the Company.

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Director's Note: Thunder in the Pleasure Garden

Michael Walling


Xerxes was one of the last operas Handel wrote for the London opera scene, of which he had been a central figure for some twenty-seven years. Not surprisingly, the music reflects the city at the time—poised and elegant; at times astonishing in its emotional depth and purity; often urbane, ironic, even jazzy; occasionally exotic and a little strange. Our production frames the machinations and passions of the characters within a world that seems most clearly to capture that characteristic complexity of tone: the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

In 1738, under the management of Jonathan Tyers—“Undertaker of the Entertainment” there—the Gardens were the center of fashionable London. They also expressed the city’s reaching out to a wider world. This was the age of early imperialism, of the Grand Tour, and of the first museum collections. Tyers gathered exotic artifacts from warmer climes, showing a particular obsession with the Middle East—a region considered at once fascinating and dangerous, from whence came such innovative fashions as coffee drinking and umbrellas. He also commissioned the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac to create a statue of Handel himself, which was unveiled in the Pleasure Gardens just as Xerxes was being performed at the Haymarket Theatre.

An anonymous Irish gentlemen visiting Vauxhall wrote: “The garden strikes the eye prodigiously; it is set with many rows of tall trees, kept in excellent order, among which are placed an incredible number of globe lamps, by which it is illuminated, and when they are lighted the sound of the music ravishing the ear, added to the great resort of company so well dressed and walking about, would almost make one believe he was in the Elysian fields. In the middle of the garden are two semicircles which appear like an amphitheatre, in which are placed a great number of small booths which may contain about six or eight people apiece, where they commonly refresh themselves with sweetmeats, wine, tea, coffee, or suchlike. The backs of these boxes or booths are adorned with curious paintings, all which are enlightened to the front with globes. They are all numbered, and very just attendance is given by a vast number of warders kept for that purpose. Near to this is a grand orchestra, where the music plays in fine weather; but this night the concert was held in a magnificent hall neatly furnished. At one side of the orchestra is a noble statue of Handel. The music no sooner began than we entered the hall, where fifty-four musicians performed. Mr. Lowe soon sang, whose character I need not here mention, and after him the inimitable Miss Burchell.”

With Handel’s music running through my head this morning, I went for a walk in Golden Gate Park. And here, in the city where we are recreating the opera, was another Vauxhall. Here were the neo-classical pavilions and follies; here were the shrines of art, with busts of writers and composers appearing through the trees; here were the museums and galleries, the coffee houses and the concerts. Here were botanical specimens from overseas put on display for education and delight; here was the fascination with an exoticized and economically colonized Asia. Perhaps contemporary San Francisco is closer to Handel’s London than it may at first appear.

Handel, I am sure, would have recognized the city’s famous queer culture. Although there is no conclusive evidence that he was gay, it was very unusual for an eighteenth-century man to remain unmarried, and even more unusual for all his close friends to be other unmarried men. Certainly he took great delight in the gender-bending possibilities presented by the form of Baroque opera. The role of Xerxes was originally sung by the famous castrato Caffarelli, and Arsamenes by a female soprano, “The Luchesina.” I suspect our reversal of the genders of the singers playing these royal brothers would not have perturbed him. Some of the most expressive music is reserved for the cross-dressed Amastris, whose tessitura is so low that in the final ensemble it is she who takes the tenor line. The conventions of gender are blurred. Identity, certainly, becomes brittle and impermanent. Like performance, it delights and then disappears.

The replica of Roubiliac’s statue on the stage tonight does not say “Handel” on its base, but “Timotheus.” Timotheus was the court musician to Alexander the Great; and in 1735 Handel had set John Dryden’s poem Alexander’s Feast, which describes Timotheus playing through the night in Xerxes’s palace at Persepolis, to celebrate Alexander’s victory over the Persian Empire. Alexander then razed the palace of Xerxes to the ground.

Any pleasure garden holds within it the seeds of its own destruction.

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A "Delightful Triumph—'Xerxes' is Funny and Flawless!"

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"A complete delight from beginning to end!"

"Elegant and fearlessly funny!"

"For vocal allure, theatrical dexterity and visual inventiveness, this 'Xerxes' proved to be a complete delight from beginning to end."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"A brilliant cast in Nicholas Hytner's marvelous production!"

"Stellar musicianship—the cast and conducting are extraordinary!"

"Conductor/harpsichordist Summers and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, abetted by a few Baroque specialists, work wonders. Summers has the sweep and rhythms of the Baroque in his blood, and draws the best out of his forces."

  –San Francisco Classical Voice
Susan Graham gave "a performance of vocal majesty and vigor."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
David Daniels "was a vivid and mellifluous presence."

Lisette Oropesa "made a superb company debut as Romilda...her singing was bright and precise."

Heidi Stober "brought lustrous tone, technical precision and saucy humor" to the role of Atalanta.

"The most impressive coloratura displays came from contralto Sonia Prina, a fierce and funny performer as the spurned princess Amastris."

"Excellent contributions, too, from bass-baritones Michael Sumuel as the servant Elviro and Wayne Tigges as the general Ariodates."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Playful, poignant, heartbreaking...and very endearing."

"The emotional effects keep deepening, for, yes, this is a comedy, but a serious one. It is playful, poignant, heartbreaking, at times ridiculous—and very endearing."

"The excellent singing...is only the half of it. The opera moves through bite-size episodes that incrementally build plot and character, like a really good sitcom. It percolates and flows, as if the composer had sequenced his numbers for a CD: arias, ariettas and ariosos...plus occasional duets and chorus numbers, all of this thickening the dramatic stew."

  –San Jose Mercury News


  • Sun 10/30/11 1:30pm *

  • Fri 11/4/11 7:30pm

  • Tue 11/8/11 7:30pm *

  • Fri 11/11/11 7:30pm *

  • Wed 11/16/11 7:00pm

  • Sat 11/19/11 7:30pm

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret/Taube Media Suite.


This production is made possible, in part, by The Bernard Osher Endownment Fund. Ms. Graham's and Mr. Daniels' appearances made possible by a gift to the Great Singers Fund by Joan and David Traitel.

Cast, program, prices and schedule are subject to change.