This exquisite opening aria from Handel’s 1738 opera Serse is known as Ombra mai fu and Largo from Xerxes or Handel’s Largo. The opera was a commercial failure, lasting only five performances in London after its premiere. In the 19th century, however, the aria was rediscovered and became one of Handel’s best-known pieces. Handel adapted the aria from the setting by Giovanni Bononcini, who, in turn, adapted it from the setting by Francesco Cavalli.
The title translates from the Italian as “Never was a shade“. It is sung by the main character, Xerxes I of Persia, admiring the shade of a plane tree.
Tender and beautiful fronds
of my beloved plane tree,
let Fate smile upon you.
May thunder, lightning, and storms
never disturb your dear peace,
nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.
Never was a shade
of any plant
dearer and more lovely,
or more sweet.
Originally composed to be sung by a soprano castrato (and typically sung in modern performances of Serse by a countertenor, contralto or a mezzo-soprano; sometimes even by a tenor or high baritone an octave below), it has been arranged for other voice types and instruments, including solo organ, solo piano, violin or cello and piano, and string ensembles, often under the title “Largo from Xerxes” or (as in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town) simply “Handel’s Largo”, although the original tempo is marked larghetto.
Steve Brooker wrote in the comments of the video below that ‘Beethoven said Handel was able to achieve dramatic effects with simple techniques and praised him as the greatest composer. This piece, sung by the lovely Patricia Janeckova -a rising star is a thing of elevated beauty‘.
1. Ombra mai fu – Wikipedia
I have always loved this aria – and never knew it was about a plane tree! It was a tragedy when castrati were banned. With all these transgender operations these days on kids hopefully we might get the castrati sound back… (Just kidding of course!)
I didn’t know about Castrati being banned apart from on kids 😉
I also didn’t know of this aria until it popped up in my collection. But I was taken with it upon first listen. Just beautiful. Thanks Bruce for your comment.
Castration (to make a Castrato) were only done on boys with good treble voices. Schubert came home from boarding school and said to his father that the teacher said he could preserve his treble voice permanently. Needless to say, his father didn’t send him back to that school!
Ah now I understand, such as before Aled Jones lost his voice. Schubert’s father was onto something!