When Mozart composed serious operas he set Italian libretti
by Metastasio and other well known librettists of opera seria.
His three operas with Da Ponte are not strictly serious operas,
they are billed as Opera Buffa/Dramma Giocosa but are supremely
genre bending. Metastasian opera seria had a long life
and was the supreme type of serious opera for many composers.
So it is not surprising that when Thomas Arne came to write
a serious opera for Covent Garden in 1762 he should set a libretto
by Metastasio, albeit one translated into English. Metastasio’s
Artaserse was originally written in 1729 and had been
set by over ninety composers including Vinci, Gluck and J.C.
Bach. Arne used his own translation, something which caused
quite a bit of comment at the time but his text seems quite
serviceable, albeit with one or two Gilbertian moments.
Arne’s Artaxerxes was first performed at Covent Garden
with Charlotte Brent (Arne’s pupil and mistress) as Mandane,
the London-based castrato Ferdinando Tenducci as Arbaces and
castrato Nicolo Peretti as Artaxerxes (the title part, but by
no means the biggest role). The main tenor role of Artabanes,
the villain of the piece, was taken by John Beard who had followed
his successful career as a tenor in Handelian opera and oratorio
with a new roles as the manager of Covent Garden; Beard would
have been 45 at the time the opera was first performed.
Artaxerxes was popular and remained in the Covent Garden
repertory until the late 1830s but it then fell out of use (with
one notable exception) until Ian Page and the Classical Opera
Company revived it last year. The notable exception involved
Joan Sutherland who recorded The soldier, tir’d of war’s
alarms on her Art of the Prima donna set. Anyone
who heard that stunning account of the aria must have been puzzled
about the opera’s absence from disc. The problem was that in
1808, all the manuscript materials were destroyed in a fire
at the Theatre Royal. Arne had published the arias, duets and
ensembles (except for the finale), but there was no score of
the complete opera. The later 19th century performances
were in a version by Henry Bishop.
Luckily the complete libretto survived, so for the 2009 revival,
Page re-composed the recitatives and commissioned Duncan Druce
to create a new finale, It is this that has been recorded in
the wake of the live performances at Covent Garden.
Artaserse is, frankly, not one of Metastasio’s best libretti.
It requires a substantial suspension of disbelief when it comes
to the character of the hero, Arbaces. But it was Arbaces’ very
nobility which probably was the cause of the opera’s popularity.
Eighteenth century audiences liked seeing princes being put
through the wringer and displaying a profound nobility of characters
in the most trying of unlikely circumstances.
In Artaxerxes, Artabanes (Andrew Staples) the general
of the King’s forces is plotting against the Persian King Xerxes.
Artabanes’ son Arbaces (Caitlin Hulcup) is in love with Xerxes’
daughter Princess Mandane (Elizabeth Watts), and has been banished
for his temerity. Before he can leave the palace his father
frames Arbaces for his own murder of Xerxes. Things are complicated
by the fact that the new King, Artaxerxes, (Christopher Ainslie)
is in love with Arbaces’ sister Semira (Rebecca Bottone). Much
of the plot revolves around Arbaces nobly insisting that he
is innocent but refusing to name the real culprit (his father).
The dénouement involves a poisoned cup of wine, intended for
Artaxerxes but which is given to Arbaces, prompting his father
to confess all.
Within these limits the result is a remarkably fluent and dramatic
opera. Arne keeps the pace going so that the entire opera, all
three acts of it, lasts a bit over two hours even though it
includes some 29 arias, duets and ensembles. Arne’s set-pieces
are generally short, but they often require virtuoso skills.
They never overstay their welcome.
Caitlin Hulcup is beautifully well modulated as the put-upon
Arbaces, complete with a profoundly moving prison scene. It
is Arbaces’ love, Mandane that gets the lion’s share of the
virtuoso numbers and Elizabeth Watts dispatches these with charming
brilliance. She is not quite the equal of Joan Sutherland in
A soldier tir’d but in context makes the piece work brilliantly.
Mandane is quite an interesting role as she lurches from loving
to hating Arbaces and spends a lot of time being conflicted,
thus giving Watts plenty of drama to work with.
Rebecca Bottone as Semira gets her own fair share of drama.
Both women are strong characters with dramatic responses to
the supposed guilt of Arbaces. If the casting has a weakness
it is that the two sopranos have voices which are slightly too
close in quality; something which exacerbates the feeling that
the two troubled women merge into a single composite character.
Christopher Ainslie as Artaxerxes also has the disadvantage
of having to be noble of bearing under pressure, something he
does rather well. And his vocal timbre is nicely differentiated
from the others.
The most interesting role is Arbanes and you can’t help but
listen to Arne’s opera and wonder what Handel would have made
of it. Perhaps the fact that the role was originally sung by
the veteran tenor John Beard would have brought depth of character
to the role. Here Andrew Staples sings admirably, but sounds
young; the character fails to dig very deeply, though I am not
sure whether this fault should be laid at Staples’ door, or
Arne’s. I suspect the latter.
Daniel Norman gives admirable support as Rimenes and gets an
aria in which both words and music seem to wander firmly into
Gilbert and Sullivan territory!
Ian Page’s recitatives are serviceable without being striking,
and they have the virtue of making the drama move on. As this
recording came after a series of performances, the cast are
all firmly in charge of the drama and the record make rather
gripping - and sometimes - thrilling listening. The cast’s diction
is uniformly excellent so that, though a complete libretto is
provided, you never need to refer to it in order to follow the
complexities of the plot. Duncan Druce’s finale concludes things
in fine style.
The orchestra provides strong support and despatches Arne’s
lively overture with élan. Arne writes for quite a big band,
with horns, trumpets and timpani.
The booklet provides an informative background article, plot
summary and full English text along with artist biographies
and pictures from the 2009 production.
The Classical Opera Company’s 2009 revival of Artaxerxes
was a remarkable discovery and this recording is far more than
an interesting record of that event. It demonstrates that Arne
had a winning combination of dramatic flair, virtuoso verve
and a nicely gallant style. The opera isn’t perfect, but it
deserves to be heard and repays repeated listening. Anyone with
an interest in 18th century opera ought to try the
disc. They won’t be disappointed.