George Frideric Handel: Ombra mai fù


Commonly known as Handel’s ‘Largo of Love’, Ombra mai fù is the opening aria in the 1738 opera Serse. Sung by the character Xerxes I of Persia, the vocal part is composed for a countertenor. Perhaps the most striking element of this aria is the vocal range used, as it the high register for the countertenor creates an angelic atmosphere. To set the scene of the aria, there is a nine bar instrumental from the chamber ensemble (comprised of a chamber string group and a harpsichord). The slow and melancholy tone is set for the voice to enter freely. The title of the aria translates into ‘Never was a shade’, and within the context of the opera, Xerxes is singing about the admiration and love he has for the shade of the plane trees.


Lyrics with Translations

Ombra mai fù/Never was a shade

di vegetabile/of any plant

cara ed amabile,/dearer and more lovely

soave piú./or more sweet

Frondi renere e belle/Tender and beautiful fronds

dei mio plantano amato/of my beloved plane tree

per voi reisplenda il fato./let Fate smile upon you.

Tuoni, lampi, e procelle/May thunder, lightning, and storms

non v’oltraggiano mai la cara pace,/never disturb your dear peace,

né giunga a profanarvi austro rapace./nor may you by blowing winds be profaned.

Ombra mai fù/Never was a shade

di vegetabile/of any plant,

cara ed amabile,/dearer and more lovely,

soave piú./or more sweet.


The Music

Remaining in a lilting 3/4 time signature, once the voice enters it is clear that Handel uses techniques such as word painting to accentuate the lyrics of the aria. The celestial notes that the voice hits in the climatic parts of the aria radiate beauty and offers us an insight into Xerxes’ admiration towards the plane tree. The repetition of the line ‘soave piú’ at the end shows the voice hit the highest note of the aria (F5), and then the line is repeated an octave down to emphasise the literal sweetness of the voice and the meaning behind the lyrics.

When the voice enters, the accompaniment stops, and this gives the voice space to grow into the notes and lyrics effectively. The lilting 3/4 time pushes the voice to create this endless stream of emotions as he/she sings each line. Originally written for a soprano castrato, in the modern day this work is usually performed by a countertenor or mezzo-soprano.

The accompaniment throughout is simple, both in terms of harmony and rhythm. Its main purpose is to support the vocal line harmonically, and the sparse texture throughout accentuates the importance of the vocalist. Although only a very short aria, the impact this has had is perhaps what has kept the history of Serse alive to the modern day. The opera was a commercial failure and only ran for five performances. It was only much later on in the 19th Century that Ombra mai fú was rediscovered, and is now known as one of Handel’s most famous and popular vocal works.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Giacomo Puccini: O Mio Babbino Caro


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jaklaight · 28th March 2016 at 4:50 pm

The Andreas Scholl performance is great. It inspired me to take singing seriously.

Czeskoslovensko · 22nd January 2024 at 9:10 am

i heard this as a child it was one of the attractions for me to classical music. I’m 82 now and still tear up when hearing it.

Dana Winsor · 27th February 2024 at 12:43 am

This is a wonderful and interesting explanation of this beautiful aria. One comment: I have never once heard anyone call this piece the “Largo of Love.” Other than calling it by it’s original title, it traditionally has been called either the “Largo from Xerxes” or “Handel’s Largo.”

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