“Ombra mai fu” is the opening aria from the 1738 operaSerse. The opera was a commercial failure, lasting only five performances in London after its premiere. In the 19th century, however, the aria was rediscovered and became one of Handel’s best-known pieces. On 24 December 1906, Reginald Fessenden, a Canadian inventor and radio pioneer, broadcast the first AM radio program, which started with a phonograph record of “Ombra mai fu”. The aria therefore was the first piece of music to be broadcast on radio.
Admeto, King of Thessaly, is mortally ill. His brother Trasimede is reported to be sighing over the portrait of a woman (Antigona). When Admeto’s wife Alceste prays to Apollo for his recovery, she is answered by a voice from the statue of the god: Admeto can only be saved if someone consents to die in his place. Alceste prepares to sacrifice herself for her husband.
Antigona, a Trojan princess, who was once betrothed to Admeto (sight unseen) and her companion Meraspe prepare to go to the palace, disguised as a shepherdess and shepherd.
Alceste kills herself and her husband recovers his health to find his wife dead. He begs Ercole (Hercules) to rescue her from Hades. Meanwhile Antigona, who has heard the news and hopes to marry Admeto, meets Trasimede, who recognises her, but she insists she is only a shepherdess. He engages her and Meraspe as gardeners.
Ercole rescues Alceste from the furies in hell. The portrait of Antigona, which Trasimede had thrown away, is brought to Admeto who admires its beauty but does not believe it to be Antigona, believing her to have died in Troy. He had been deceived by his brother who, entrusted with bringing Antigona from Troy, had fallen in love with her himself and given Admeto a false portrait.
Antigona still hopes to marry Admeto, but he is still distracted by grief at the loss of his wife. Alceste plans to return to the palace in disguise, to test her husband’s fidelity; Ercole will assist her by pretending to Admeto that his mission had been unsuccessful. Disguised as a soldier, Alceste overhears Antigona declaring her love for Admeto and her hopes of marrying him. She interrogates Antigona, who is evasive about her prospects of marrying Admeto.
Meraspe reveals Antigona’s true identity to Admeto. When Ercole reports on his purportedly unsuccessful rescue attempt, Admeto decides to marry Antigona.
Still disguised as a soldier, Alceste confronts Antigona and is arrested by a courtier. Ercole rescues her and tells her that Admeto is about to marry another woman.
As Admeto is about to take a new wife, the jealous Trasimede tries to kill his brother, who is saved by Alceste.
Admeto forgives Trasimede, who now hopes for Antigona, who has to yield her hopes of Admeto in favor of his restored wife.