Sibling and romantic rivalry are at play in the court of Persia where King Xerxes and his brother vie for power and affection in this comic masterpiece. Xerxes plans to marry Romilda, but his brother is also in love with her. When a former fiancée vows revenge, entertaining complications abound, all set to Handel’s Baroque musical magic.

Xerxes photo
Photo by Mark Abramowitz

Metropolitan Opera director Dan Rigazzi, who staged the company’s sold-out production of Handel’s Julius Caesar in 2016, returns with his acclaimed stars Andrey Nemzer, Met countertenor, in the title role, and Lara Lynn McGill as Romilda.


Chatham Baroque

Chatham Baroque's Artistic Directors Andrew Fouts, Patricia Halverson, and Scott Pauley form the core of the orchestra conducted by Walter Morales, creating an authentic and dynamic soundscape for this timeless production.

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Interview with the Director



Performance Excerpt



Production Information

Sung in English with projected titles in English.

Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes with 2 intermissions

The production of Xerxes is sponsored by a generous gift from Dr. Eugene and Mrs. Barbara Myers.




Production Credits

Music   George Frideric Handel
Libretto    Giovanni Bononcini
English Translation    Stephen Wadsworth
Director    Daniel Ragazzi
Conductor    Walter Morales
Assistant Conductor    Jon Erik Schreiber
Pianist   Steven Liening 
Pianist   Yu-Ju Wu
Choreographer    Greer Reed
Scenic Design   Hank Bullington
Projection Design   Hank Bullington
Costume Design   Tony Sirk 
Lighting Design   Bob Steineck
Hair and Makeup Design   Rikkilee Rose
Assistant Director   Briana Sosenheimer
Stage Manager   Emma Squire
Assistant Stage Managers   Courtney Chaplin
    Lauren Wickett


Xerxes, King of Persia   Andrey Nemzer
Arsamene, His brother   Daniel Moody 
Amastre, Xerxes' fiancée   Emily Harmon 
Romilda, Arsamene's fiancée   Lara Lynn McGill
Atalanta, Romilda's sister   Bonnie Frauenthal 
Ariodate, Romilda's father   Evan Koons 
Elviro, Arsamene's servant   James Eder
Ensemble:   Nicolas Barilar
    Richard Block
    Diego DelValle
    Rodolfo Giron
    Chunghee Lee
    Francesca Molinaro
    Hannah Shea
    Emily Weaver
    Terriq White
Dancers   Weylin Gomez
    Mils James


The Story

Act 1
The victorious general, Ariodate, hosts Xerxes, the Persian King, on his estate. Ariodate presents the King with a sacred tree, as a sign of their friendship. Left alone with the tree, Xerxes swears to cherish and protect it always. When he hears Ariodate's daughters, Romilda and Atalanta, come into the garden, he hides so that he can watch them unobserved. Although engaged to the Princess Amastre, Xerxes falls in love with Romilda at first sight. She, however, is in love with Arsamene, Xerxes' brother. So that he can make her his wife, he banishes Arsamene even though Romilda rejects his advances. Later, after an elaborate banquet, Xerxes informs Ariodate that a member of the royal family will marry his daughter. The conversation is overheard by Amastre who is disguised as one of Ariodate's servants.

Before he leaves the country, Arsamene writes to Romilda to swear his eternal love, entrusting this letter to his servant Elviro.

Act 2
Elviro who has disguised himself as a flower vendor attempts to deliver the letter, but is stopped by Amastre. She now has proof of Xerxes machinations and of his faithlessness. In the nick of time Atalanta, Romilda’s sister, meets Elviro and convinces him that she can deliver the letter to Romilda. Atalanta, however, has other plans, as she has fallen in love with Arsamene. She tells Elviro that Romilda has fallen in love with Xerxes. Elviro leaves to give his master the sad news.

While Atalanta is reading over Arsamene's letter, she is surprised by Xerxes who seizes it and reads it himself. Quick witted as ever, Atalanta tells Xerxes that the letter is for her. Craftily Xerxes shows the letter to Romilda hoping to convince her that Arsamene no longer has any affection for her, but Romilda vows to love him anyway.

Act 3
Arsamene sneaks back onto Ariodate's estate to confront Romilda for her "infidelity." In turn, she confronts him about his love letter, which she believes he wrote to Atalanta. During their fight, Ariodate arrives. When he sees the two lovers quarreling, he assumes that Xerxes' veiled promise to marry a member of the royal household to one of his daughters, was a promise to marry Romilda to Arsamene. Thunderstruck, Arsamene and Romilda are married immediately. Xerxes arrives, but too late.

Xerxes’ rage is assuaged only when Amastre takes off her disguise and demands that Xerxes make good on his promise to marry her. Xerxes realizes that he has made a fool of himself, asks for Amastre's forgiveness, and marries her on the spot.




For a practicing classicist who has read with relish the five hundred chapters (short ones, it must be confessed) of Herodotus’ mellifluous biography of Xerxes’ ambitions and defeats, my thought on my first encounter with Handel's Xerxes—with apologies to Mozart and Da Ponte—was that of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. “Dove sono (Where are they)?” Although she is wondering what has become of her happier days, I ask myself: where in Handel's opera is the king of tragic grandeur, the King of Kings, his superstitions, his cruelty, his generosity, who having reviewed the multitudes under his command broke into tears at the thought that no one in a hundred years will remain—in short, where are all those elements which make Xerxes a tragic hero?

Quite obviously, in Handel's Xerxes they are not there, but then this is a baroque opera with even less historical veracity than last year’s production of Julius Caesar. What is even more intriguing is the choice of the two identifiable incidents in Xerxes’ life. The first is the presence of a plane tree which the historical Xerxes, out of his admiration for its beauty, adorned with golden ornaments. In our opera he extols its beauty in the universally familiar aria "Ombra mai fu." Ironically in my youth this larghetto became standard fare for setting the proper mood in funeral parlors. The second historic trope is a scene at the bridge spanning the Hellespont where Xerxes oversees the return of his defeated army from Greece. As an afterthought it is possible that these locations may have been chosen because they offered the opportunity for that kind of scenic extravagance so dear to opera-goers of the period.

Xerxes crossing the Hellespont

Equally interesting is the cast of characters. Only three are documented in The Histories of Herodotus. Xerxes is a given. Amastris was indeed Xerxes’ wife, but she was conniving and murderous when she discovered that Xerxes had a mistress. In a vindictive mood she blamed her rival's mother for bringing up her daughter in such a slovenly manner, summoned her to her chambers, and her ears, nose, lips, tongue and breasts cut off, then ordered that they be thrown to the dogs. Finally, Arsamene, who is the “romantic lead” in Handel’s effort, receives only passing mention in Herodotus’ account as one of the sons of Darius, as was Xerxes, and commander of a small division of his army.

Interestingly, the first performance of Xerxes was as an oratorio. It took place on March 28, 1738. Its debut as an opera seria occurred on April 15 of the same year at the King’s Theater, Haymarket. It was a flop.

The libretto was not new. It had been used several times before, most notably in 1654 by Francesco Cavalli. It contains comic elements which had been acceptable earlier to Venetian audiences but to Londoners opera seria was expected to be serious. There was not to be a mixture of low life (buffo) and horseplay with the upper classes (opera seria). Handel, however, ignored this in his Xerxes.

Equally unusual was the fact that Xerxes is made up almost wholly of short, one-movement arias, not the long three-movement da capo arias which Londoners anticipated. Although this may have discombobulated many in the audience—surely not all—it is clearly one of the features which endears it to modern audiences.

Xerxes enjoyed only five performances at the King’s Theater and then fell into oblivion for two centuries as did Handel’s other operatic efforts. As in the case of Julius Caesar—last year’s SummerFest offering—it was not revived again until 1924 when it was featured at the Göttingen Handel Festival. Its appeal was immediate. In the following two years it was performed at least 90 times in fifteen German cities. Today, although it does not boast the popularity it has in the 1920s, it is ranked second only to Julius Caesar in popularity.

—Jerry Clack


Meet the Composer

George Frideric Handel

[born Halle, 23 February 1685; died London, 14 April 1759]

George Frideric (or Frederick) Handel was a German, later British, Baroque composer who spent the bulk of his career in London, becoming well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, and organ concertos. Handel received critical training in Halle, Hamburg, and Italy before settling in London in 1712; he became a naturalized British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced both by the great composers of the Italian Baroque and the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition.

George Friederic Handel portrait

Within fifteen years, Handel had started three commercial opera companies to supply the English nobility with Italian opera. Musicologist Winton Dean writes that his operas show that "Handel was not only a great composer; he was a dramatic genius of the first order." As Alexander's Feast (1736) was well received, Handel made a transition to English choral works. After his success with Messiah (1742) he never performed an Italian opera again. Almost blind, and having lived in England for nearly fifty years, he died in 1759, a respected and rich man. His funeral was given full state honors, and he was buried in Westminster Abbey in London.

Born the same year as Johann Sebastian Bach and Domenico Scarlatti, Handel is regarded as one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era, with works such as the Water Music, Music for the Royal Fireworks and Messiah remaining steadfastly popular. One of his four Coronation Anthems, Zadok the Priest (1727), composed for the coronation of George II, has been performed at every subsequent British coronation, traditionally during the sovereign's anointing. Handel composed more than forty operas in over thirty years, and since the late 1960s, with the revival of baroque music and historically informed musical performance, interest in Handel's operas has grown.



Giovanni Bononcini

[18 July 1670 - 9 July 1747]

Giovanni Bononcini was an Italian Baroque composer, cellist, singer and teacher, one of a family of string players and composers. He was born in Modena, Italy, the oldest of three sons. His father, Giovanni Maria Bononcini (1642–1678), was a violinist and a composer, and his younger brother, Antonio Maria Bononcini, was also a composer. An orphan from the age of 8, Giovanni Battista studied in the music school of Giovanni Paolo Colonna at San Petronio Basilica in Bologna (perhaps in 1680 or 1681).

In 1685, at the age of 15, he published three collections of instrumental works (in two of which he gave his age as 13). On 30 May 1686, he was accepted as a member of the prestigious Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna. His services were already much in demand: he worked at San Petronio as a string player and singer, published further collections of instrumental pieces, and produced two oratorios for performance in Bologna and Modena.

In 1691 he moved to Rome, where he entered the service of Filippo II Colonna, a powerful patron of the arts, for whom Bononcini, along with Colonna's librettist, Silvio Stampiglia, produced six serenatas, an oratorio and at three (possibly five) operas between 1692 and 1696, including the highly successful Xerses (1694).

By 1710, productions of Camilla (presumably based on Bononcini's version) had reached London as well as many cities across Italy. From 1720 to 1732 he was in London, where for a time his popularity rivaled George Frideric Handel's, who had arrived in London in 1712. The Whig party favored Handel, while the Tories favored Bononcini. Their competition inspired the epigram by John Byrom that made the phrase "Tweedledum and Tweedledee" famous. Handel steadily gained the ascendancy, and Bononcini became a pensioner of the Duchess of Marlborough, who had led his admirers. Bononcini left London after charges of plagiarism were proven against him: he had palmed off a madrigal by Antonio Lotti as his own work.

Bononcini died on 9 July 1747 in Vienna, impoverished and largely forgotten. After his death, his last major composition, a Te Deum which he had composed in 1741 for Francis I, was performed in celebration of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle.