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Leonardo VINCI (1696? – 1730)
Artaserse (1730)
Philippe Jaroussky (counter-tenor) – Artaserse; Max Emanuel Cenic (counter-tenor) – Mandane; Daniel Behle (tenor) – Artabano; Franco Fagioli (counter-tenor) – Arbace; Valer Barna-Sabadus (counter-tenor) – Semira; Yuriy Mynenko (counter-tenor) – Megabise
Coro della Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Concerto Köln/Diego Fasolis
rec. Deutschlandfunk Kammermusiksaal, Köln, 21-28 September 2011
Libretto with English, French and German translations enclosed
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6028692 [3 CDs: 67:26 + 65:46 + 54:36]

Leonardo Vinci should not be confused with the Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519). The latter, however, besides all his other skills, was also an able musician who allegedly could play any stringed instrument. He is said to have composed music as well but nothing of this has survived. His nearly namesake on the other hand was an important musician, highly regarded during his lifetime and long after his demise – being poisoned with a cup of chocolate since, rumour has it, he had an affair with a high-born Roman lady. Artaserse was his last opera and it had a short run in February 1730 due to the death of Pope Benedict XIII, after which all theatres in the Papal States were closed. Vinci’s opera was revived over and over again through the whole of Europe and is in the notes for this issue declared ‘the most celebrated Italian opera’.
The libretto is by Metastasio and Artaserse is the Persian king Artaxerxes I, son of Xerxes I (Serse). He ruled from 465 BC to 424 BC. The story is, as so often in baroque operas, rather complicated: Mandane, sister of Artaserse, is in love with Arbace, son of King Serse’s general Artabano. Serse is against this love and banishes Arbace. When the two lovers secretly meet in the castle garden Artabano appears, carrying a bloody sword. He admits to Arbace that he has killed Serse for his ill treatment of Arbace and also because he wants Arbace to become king. Then the two exchange swords. Now Artaserse arrives and Artabano tells him about the murder and accuses Dario, Artaserse’s older brother, of the deed. Artaserse orders Artabano to kill Dario. A little later Artaserse admits that he loves Semira, Arbace’s sister.
The murder of Dario is announced and Megabise, a general who supports Artabano and also is in love with Semira, brings in Arbace, in chains, and announces that a bloody sword had been found among Arbace’s possessions. Arbace is condemned to death but Artaserse doubts that he is guilty and releases him so he can get away.
In the temple Artaserse swears that he will uphold law and order in his kingdom. To affirm this he is about to drink from a sacred goblet, not knowing that Artabano has poisoned the drink. Before he has time to drink Megabise and his soldiers approach the castle. The attack is averted when Arbace kills Megabise. Now Artaserse hands the goblet to Arbace so he can prove his innocence by drinking from it. In this situation Artabano, to save the life of his son, admits that he has poisoned the drink and also that he murdered Serse. Artabano is captured and lead away, but Artaserse, in love with Semira, condemns him, not to death but to exile. In the concluding chorus everybody hails Artaserse: Justice becomes beautiful when accompanied by mercy. Happy end to this bloody story!
At this time women were not allowed to appear on stage so all the roles, male as well as female, were sung by castrati. This means that there are five counter-tenors and one tenor (Artabano) appearing on this recording. Their voices are, however, very individual and pretty soon one learns the specific timbre of each of them … and what voices! Philippe Jaroussky has had a comet-like career and though still only 35 he has a recording career of more than thirteen years behind him. He is a superb singer, brilliant, powerful, technically perfect and so beautiful of tone. Go to the opening of CD 2 and listen to the aria Rendimi il caro amico (tr. 2). Irresistible … but then so are the rest of the cast. Max Emanuel Cencic’s more lyrical voice is extremely well suited to Mandane’s role but he is just as apt in more dramatic utterances. I was very enthusiastic about Franco Fagioli when I heard him as Giulio Cesare in Helsinki a year ago and have longed to hear him again. His Arbace is tremendous with breathtaking virtuosity. The long aria that concludes act I, Vo solcando un mar crudele (CD 1 tr. 27) should become a baroque hit and I can’t imagine it better sung. Valer Barna-Sabadus as Semira has some of the most beautiful arias and Bramar di perdere (CD 1 tr. 15) is another hit. Yuriy Mynenko has thrillingly brilliant top notes, making the general Megabise’s arias suitably warlike. In Sogna il guerrier le schiere (CD 1 tr.13) he, the warrior, dreams of troops, in the same way a hunter dreams of woods and the fisherman dreams of nets and hooks.
The odd man out is Daniel Behle as Artabano. It’s almost five years since I first heard him, as the Prince in La cenerentola in Stockholm. He then seemed ideal for such lyrical roles with fluent technique and ease of delivery. I also noted that he had ‘enough heft to make his top notes ring out’. Since then I have heard him as a recording artist, not least as a superb Lieder singer. Here he surprises with a tone that is powerful and baritonal, almost like hearing Placido Domingo’s Otello when he was at the height of his powers. It seems that Behle is ready for the lirico-spinto repertoire. The real highlight is, to my mind, the da capo-aria in act III when he fears that his son is dead, Figlio se piů non vivi (CD 3 tr. 9), where the outer sections are among the most moving moments in any baroque opera.
Artaserse is brimful with lovely music, from overture to the invigorating concluding chorus. Concerto Köln is certainly one of the best orchestras in this genre and Diego Fasolis draws excellent playing from them. I know people who avoid baroque operas since they can’t stand the interminable secco recitatives. They look very long here too, when one sees the libretto, but they fizz along at brisk speeds and they are, just like Handel’s, expressive and individual.
The more than three-hour-long work was over in almost no time and then it was tempting to play it all over again. With excellent sound, splendid notes and a libretto in four languages to add to all the excellent singing and playing this is one of the best baroque opera recordings I have heard. Don’t miss it!
Göran Forsling