Thomas Arne was a leading English theatre
composer of the eighteen century, and his Artaxerxes,
the first ever opera seria
in the English language. It
tells the story of the young Prince of Persia, Artaxerxes. The
opening of the opera sees the prince intimating that he desires
the death of his brother, Darius, whom he mistakenly believes
to have murdered their father, the Persian king, Xerxes. Artabanes,
the ambitious and evil Commander of the Royal Guard, is only too
pleased to carry out the sentence and to rid the kingdom of Darius.
It was actually Artabanes who had murdered Xerxes, and having
got rid of Prince Darius, he plans to do away with Artaxerxes
as well, to gain the throne of Persia for himself and his son,
Arbaces. Despite false accusations of treachery, Arbaces turns
out to be loyal to Artaxerxes and is offered the royal cup to
drink from as a pledge of his loyalty – the very cup that Artabanes
has poisoned in his plot to kill Artaxerxes. Artabanes cannot
let his son drink the poison and die, and reveals his dastardly
plans, as well as the fact that it was he who killed Xerxes. When
Artaxerxes condemns the false Commander to death for his evil
deeds, Artabanes begs for this father’s life, claiming that he
would also die were his father put to death, and a soft-hearted
Artaxerxes changes the sentence to exile.
Chunks of the opera were lost in the fire that destroyed the Covent Garden theatre in 1808, and this recording is an attempted reconstruction, using as much of the original material as possible, and with newly composed sections (primarily recitative) to replace those that that were lost.
The cast is a stellar one, with leading roles given to Richard Edgar-Wilson, a sensitive Christopher Robson as the title role, and Catherine Bott’s rich, mature, characterful and versatile soprano. Ian Partridge is wonderfully spirited here, yet his true gentlemanly character seems to shine through in his beautifully suave and sophisticated tenor voice, with the result that he sounds too pleasant to be a truly villainous Artabanes. The Parley of Instruments are conducted by Roy Goodman in a performance of tremendous vivacity and conviction.
This is a seminal recording of one of the most important operas composed in the eighteenth century and, as such, should be in every opera lover’s collection.
see also review by Brian