One of George Frideric Handel's best-known compositions, the so-called "largo" Ombra mai fu, is found in Serse. But there it is a larghetto and the pathos with which it is sung is meant to be comic: a tree is serenaded. Although Serse is commonly described as an opera seria the events it portrays are not meant to be taken entirely seriously. Whether this work is actually a seria, and as such a forerunner of Mozart's dramma giocoso, or a late example of Venetian light opera has been the subject of debate for centuries. At any rate, Serse is Handel's most unconventional contribution to Italian opera, telling as it does a crazy story about love and heartbreak:
King Xerxes of Persia has abandoned Amastre, his betrothed. Lacking any other object for his affections, he tenderly serenades a plane tree. He is overheard by Romilda, who wastes no time mocking him – and Xerxes falls in love with her voice. She, however, rejects his advances since her heart belongs to the King's brother, Arsamene. Romilda's sister Atalanta is also in love with Arsamene and she hatches a plot to drive Romilda into Xerxe's arms. The slighted Amastre appears at court disguised as a soldier, causing yet more confusion. In the meantime Xerxes has a bridge built over the Hellespont with a view to conquering Europe. The bridge, however, is immediately destroyed in a storm. Everything resolves itself when Romilda's father accidentally causes her to marry Arsamene. Amastra finally reveals her true identity to the furious Xerxes and threatens to kill herself out of unrequited love. Xerxes is struck by remorse and marries her – all's well that ends well.
Handel managed to secure the services of the famous castrato Caffarelli to play the title role, but since no other stars were available to the composer for Serse the rest of the parts are not especially demanding. Despite this, it is precisely the simpler melodic ideas that evoke particularly intense emotion. The forms of the arias and scenes are more playfully fashioned, and the plot, switching between comedy and tragedy, was intended to satisfy the London audience's desire to be entertained – but failed to do so. It was not until the Handel Festival in Göttingen in 1924 that Serse began to establish itself in the repertoire.