Ombra Mai Fu: Shades of Greece and Rome in the librettos for handel’s London operas
© Cambridge University Press 2017. In 481 BC, as Xerxes was approaching Sardis with his enormous expeditionary force, he was one day south of Sardis when, according to Herodotus VII. 31, he ‘came across a plane tree of such beauty that he was moved to decorate it with golden ornaments and to appoint a guardian for it in perpetuity’. Meanwhile at Abydos, on the south shore of the Hellespont, north-west of Sardis, his engineers had been constructing two bridges across the Hellespont, which Herodotus tells us about almost immediately afterwards (chapters 33-6). At one stage, he says, the work was successfully completed, but a storm of great violence smashed it up and carried everything away. Xerxes was very angry when he learned of the disaster, and he gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes and have a pair of fetters thrown into it. I have heard before now that he also sent people to brand it with hot irons. … In addition to punishing the Hellespont, he gave orders that the men responsible for building the bridges should have their heads cut off. His orders were of course carried out, the bridges were rebuilt, and after wintering in Sardis he and his force set off for Abydos in the spring of 480; it took them seven days and seven nights without a break to cross over to Europe on the bridges, and the rest is history - or, if you are Minato or Stampiglia, Cavalli or Bononcini or Handel, the rest is fiction. In the Minato-Stampiglia libretto of Handel’s Serse, the plane tree is evidently at Abydos (it has been transplanted some 150 miles), Xerxes is already there when the storm comes, and apart from those slight distortions of approximately one page of Herodotus’ monumental work there is precious little in the opera that has anything to do with any ancient evidence for Xerxes or his famous expedition to Greece. The plane tree is given far more prominence at the beginning of the opera than it receives in Herodotus, who deals with it in thirteen words of Greek, and the storm comes over as rather a tame affair, focalised through the comic character Elviro: we are not shown Xerxes reacting to it in any way, and there is nothing about his angry treatment of the Hellespont and the engineers.