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Handel’s transformation of the ridiculous into the sublime

The object of Xerxes' affection
by Semolo75, from Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night Jeffrey Thomas, Artistic and Music Director of the American Bach Soloists (ABS), returned to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) to conduct the last in an annual series of Master Classes co-sponsored by ABS. This year the opera produced by the Conservatory Baroque Ensemble was George Frideric Handel’s HWV 40, Serse (Xerxes), known by many only for its opening aria, “Ombra mai fu.” So it was not surprising that this was one of the selections that a student prepared for coaching by Thomas.

In his opening remarks, Thomas did not hesitate to observe that this is a pretty ridiculous opera. He described the title character as “clueless;” and that was certainly the way the role was played the last time San Francisco Opera staged the work in the fall of 2011. Thomas also emphasized that the opening aria is a love song sung by the title character … to his favorite plane tree. This is not the usual stuff from which operas (or love songs) are made; so it might be worth inquiring as to what made this aria such an enduring “classic” in the standard repertoire.

I think I may have a case for blaming the British on this one. Growing up, I knew this music only as “Handel’s ‘Largo.’” There was no explicit association with opera, and it was always played very solemnly (as just about every other piece by Handel was played in the middle of the twentieth century). I later learned that the solemnity had much to do with the music (in instrumental form) being a preferred selection in England for funeral services. The Largo tempo seemed conducive for meditations on mortality. Ironically, this was not even Handel’s tempo marking. In its original love-song-to-a-tree version, the tempo was the much lighter Larghetto.

We thus may have a British misconception to thank for “Ombra mai fu” becoming an “accidental classic.” In all fairness, the aria certainly deserves that status, even if the path to attaining it was somewhat crooked. It is one of Handel’s shortest arias, and the text consists of exactly ten Italian words. However, when properly performed, it is one of those pieces of music with the power to make time stand still; and, when last night’s student introduced the very first syllable with a stunningly gradual crescendo, it was clear that time would stand still for all of us fortunate to be in the SFCM Recital Hall last night.