American countertenor Christopher Lowrey and San Fransisco based early music ensemble Voices of Music perform “Ombra mai fu”, the opening aria from the 1738 opera Serse by George Frideric Handel. A 4K, Ultra HD video from the Voices of Music “Art of the Countertenor” concert, March 2016.
Table of Contents
The Musicians and their Instruments
Voices of Music performs on original instruments (instruments from the time of the composer):
- Lisa Grodin, baroque viola by Mathias Eberl, Salzburg, Austria, 1680
- Kati Kyme, baroque violin by Johann Gottlob Pfretzschner, Mittenwald, 1791
- Carla Moore, baroque violin by Johann Georg Thir, Vienna, Austria, 1754
- Maxine Nemerovski, baroque violin by Joseph Gaffino, Paris, 1769
- Elisabeth Reed, baroque cello, anonymous, 1673
- Farley Pearce, violone by George Stoppani, Manchester, 1985, after Amati, 1560
- David Tayler, archlute by Andreas von Holst, Munich, 2012, after Tieffenbrucker, c1610
- Hanneke van Proosdij, baroque organ by Winold van der Putten, Finsterwolde,
- Netherlands, 2004, after early 18th-century northern German instruments
- Gabrielle Wunsch, baroque violin by Lorenzo Carcassi, Florence, Italy, 1765
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Serse (English title: Xerxes; HWV 40) is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel. It was first performed in London on 15 April 1738. The Italian libretto was adapted by an unknown hand from that by Silvio Stampiglia for an earlier opera of the same name by Giovanni Bononcini in 1694. Stampiglia’s libretto was itself based on one by Nicolò Minato that was set by Francesco Cavalli in 1654.
The opera is set in Persia (modern-day Iran) in 480 BC and is very loosely based upon Xerxes I of Persia, though there is little in either the libretto or music that is relevant to that setting. Serse, originally sung by a soprano castrato, is now usually performed by a soprano (or mezzo-soprano) and sopranist.
The opening aria, “Ombra mai fu”, sung by Xerxes to a plane tree (Platanus orientalis), is set to one of Handel’s best-known melodies, and is often known as Handel’s “Largo” (despite being marked “larghetto” in the score).
The piece is originally composed to be sung by a soprano castrato. It is sung in modern performances of Serse by a countertenor, contralto or a mezzo-soprano.
Handel’s arias form one of the core repertories for singers of 18th-century music, owing not only to the quality of the compositions but also to the variety of effects and styles present in his operas, oratorios, and sacred music.
The aria “Ombra mai fù,” known also as “Handel’s Largo,” is one of his best-known works; somewhat surprisingly, it comes down to us through a circuitous path. The original version was composed by Cavalli in the mid-17th century, then “borrowed” by Bononcini for his 1694 production of the opera Serse, then substantially revised by Handel for his own version of Serse which premiered in London in April of 1738.
Handel’s version retains the overall texture, scoring, and melodic shapes of the original, but Handel reworks the vocal line and creates more interplay between the singer and the violins.
American countertenor Christopher Lowrey sings with a wide range of distinguished companies around the world, including Royal Opera House, Carnegie Hall, Glyndebourne Festival, BBC Proms, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Philharmonie de Paris, Barbican Centre, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, La Fenice, Aix-en-Provence Festival, Academy of Ancient Music, Boston Early Music Festival, Opéra Royal de Versailles, Pinchgut Opera, English National Opera, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, English Concert, Bach Collegium Japan, Boston Baroque, Arcangelo, Early Opera Company, Ambronay Festival, Ensemble Pygmalion, Le Banquet Céleste, Opéra National du Rhin, La Nuova Musica, London Handel Festival, Kammerochester Basel, Cappella Mediterranea, Göttingen Handel Festival, Adelaide Festival, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and Voices of Music.
He has worked with a variety of conductors including William Christie, Vladimir Jurowski, Christophe Rousset, Laurence Cummings, Richard Egarr, Harry Bicket, Raphaël Pichon, Christian Curnyn, Stephen Layton, Masaaki Suzuki, Erin Helyard, David Bates, Damien Guillon, Roberto Abbado, Leonardo García-Alarcón, and Martin Pearlman.
Ombre mai fu lyrics (Text)
Frondi tenere e belle
del mio platano amato
per voi risplenda il fato.
Tuoni, lampi, e procelle
non v’oltraggino mai la cara pace,
né giunga a profanarvi austro rapace.
Ombra mai fu
cara ed amabile,
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,