Thomas ARNE (1710–1778)
Artaxerxes – An English Opera (1762) (Reconstructed and edited by Peter Holman)
Artaxerxes - Christopher Robson (counter-tenor)
Artabanes - Ian Partridge (tenor)
Arbaces - Patricia Spence (mezzo)
Rimenes - Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor)
Mandane - Catherine Bott (soprano)
Semira - Philippa Hyde (soprano)
Chorus - Colin Campbell, Charles Gibbs (bass)
The Parley of Instruments/Roy Goodman
rec. The Warehouse, Waterloo, London, March 1995. DDD.
Texts included.
HYPERION DYAD CDD22073 [72:26 + 67:50]
This recording was originally issued in 1996 to a warm welcome. Its reissue at half the original price deserves no less a welcome now, especially as it is still the only available recording of Arne’s one and only opera seria – generally regarded as the first of its kind in English – or, indeed, of any of his longer vocal works. Peter Holman, who also contributes the notes, deserves our thanks for reconstructing the lost, fire-damaged, items in such a way as to make the work performable.
Arne’s most famous work is Rule, Britannia, from his 1740 masque (King) Alfred – not available in complete form on record, though a useful CD of highlights was offered as the cover-mount disc for BBC Music Magazine some years ago, copies of which may occasionally surface in second-hand shops and on e-bay.
Artaxerxes is an attractive work, which deserves to be heard more often. There’s plenty of attractive music, right from the duettino which opens Act I, though nothing quite as memorable as Rule, Britannia, or Arne’s many settings of Shakespeare songs which are still the norm for most of us.
The libretto, too, is at least not a handicap, though a little flowery by comparison with those which Jennens prepared for Handel’s oratorios. Arne’s own literary efforts are not well regarded, but here he was working with a production of the great Metastasio, in a translation usually regarded as his own; considering the generally stilted quality of eighteenth-century English verse, it’s not at all bad.
Those with an interest in classical history will know of Artaxerxes best for his having offered sanctuary to Themistocles when he had been exiled by the Athenians, whilst biblical scholars will know him as Artashasta, who, continuing the ecumenical policies of Cyrus, commissioned Ezra and Nehemiah to commence the rebuilding of Jerusalem, as recounted in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah and 3 Esdras. Both classicists and biblical scholars will be surprised to find that Arne’s opera concerns itself with neither of these, dealing instead with the murder of Artaxerxes’ father, Xerxes, the blame for which initially fell on his older brother Darius, and the murderous machinations of the chief of guards Artapanus (Arne’s Artabanes).
A beautifully sensitive performance of the overture bodes well for the quality of the orchestral support and of Roy Goodman’s direction, both of which are indeed exemplary throughout. As Peter Holman writes in the notes, Artaxerxes is remarkable for the richness and verve of Arne’s orchestral writing, albeit for a comparatively small ensemble, and the members of The Parley of Instruments perfectly illustrate his point.
The opening Mandane-Arbaces duettino Fair Aurora pr’ythee stay (CD1, tr.3) and the two following airs for Mandane (Catherine Bott) and Arbaces (Patricia Spence) set the tone for the high quality of the vocal contributions; not only does each impress individually, their voices also blend excellently.
The music for Mandane and Arbaces provides the focal point of the opera – hardly surprisingly, when Mandane was played by Arne’s mistress, Charlotte Brent; Catherine Bott’s performance is, equally unsurprisingly, the chief glory of the recording. Her big set-piece aria The soldier tir’d of War’s Alarms (CD2, tr.23) was one of Joan Sutherland’s forays into the eighteenth-century repertoire. (The Art of the Prima Donna, Decca Legends, 467 1152).
If you don’t want the whole 2-CD Sutherland set, you can download this one track for £0.99 from passionato, as I did for comparison purposes. As usual with Dame Joan, the singing is excellent, with some effortless high notes, but the words are to all intents inaudible. Catherine Bott not only sings the air equally well, the words are much more audible and the piece benefits from its place in context, framed by two pieces of recitative (CD2, trs.22 and 24), the second of which leads to a fine performance of the final chorus (CD2, tr.25). At a slightly faster basic pace, too, she decorates the music slightly more, and rather more naturally, than Sutherland.
Her contribution here prompts me to remind readers of her equally distinguished part in the success of Emma Kirkby’s 3-CD set of Handel Arias on another inexpensive Hyperion set which I made my Bargain of the Month in September, 2007 (CDS44271/3 – see my review and Kirk McElhearn’s review).
Patricia Spence as Arbaces is also excellent. She makes a convincing substitute for the castrato voice for which the part was originally written. I didn’t find her moderate use of vibrato at all troubling.
Christopher Robson as Artaxerxes, another castrato part, also sings beautifully, though he does not always convincingly overcome the perennial countertenor problem of producing sufficient power to make himself heard above the orchestra. Perhaps the engineers, whose part in the proceedings is otherwise excellent, might have cheated a little and given him – and, occasionally, some of the other singers – a slight boost.
Philippa Hyde as Semira sings beautifully, though her diction is a trifle less exemplary than that of most of the cast. Richard Edgar-Wilson sings the minor role of Rimenes well.
There isn’t a single vocal weakness throughout, with the possible exception of Ian Partridge’s Artabanes – a beautiful voice, as always, but perhaps a little light-toned for this part. He doesn’t convince in the role of someone who has just slain the king and is trying to ‘frame’ Darius for the deed (CD1, tr.8, and especially the air Behold, on Lethe’s dismal strand, tr.9). He asks Artaxerxes to imagine the dead king, his father, calling Revenge! Revenge!, but one imagines that Xerxes might actually be crying out in more stentorian tones.
With the small reservations which I’ve noted about the balance between voice(s) and orchestra, the recording is excellent. The presentation is of Hyperion’s usual high quality. I could have wished for a slightly fuller synopsis than The Argument, reproduced on page 5 from the 1762 libretto; though the booklet is already thicker than those usually included with slim-line 2-CD sets, one could have been included.
For those wishing to extend their acquaintance with Arne, I make the following recommendations: