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Arne, Artaxerxes : (edited & reconstructed Duncan Druce & Ian Page), Soloists, Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company/Ian Page. Linbury Thetare, The Royal Opera, London. 30.10.2009 (CC)


Artaxerxes - Christopher Ainslie
Mandane - Elizabeth Watts
Artabanes - Andrew Staples
Arbaces - Caitlin Hulcup
Semira - Rebecca Bottone
Rimenes - Steven Bell
Servants/ - Anthony Kurt-Gabel, Adrien Mastrosimone, Edward Mitton,
Guards Sebastian Rose

Director - Martin Duncan
Designs - Johan Engels
Lighting - Nicholas Michaletos
Movement - Michael Popper
Costumes - Johann Engels

Christopher Ainslie as Artaxerxes

Between them, Duncan Druce and Ian Page have wrought a musicological miracle on this, one of Arne’s finest scores. A lost finale had to be reconstructed by Duncan Druce while Ian Page has added recitatives. Performed here in (slightly early) honour of the composer’s 300th birthday (Arne’s dates are 1710-1778), the result is a jewel. Arne was intimately linked with Covent Garden. He was born on King Street (just off the piazza) and died in Bow Street. Artaxerxes was premiered in the Theatre Royal (the precursor of today’s Royal Opera House) in February 1762, achieving an impressive tally of 111 performances between then and 1790. Haydn admired the piece, reportedly saying that he “had no idea we had such an opera in the English language”. Mozart may well have heard a performance in the mid-1760s.

The opera is set in Ancient Persia and explores themes of love, loyalty and friendship, all tested via the machinations of the evil Artabanes, the Chief General of the King’s Army. Artabanes is responsible for the death of King Xerxes (Artaxerxes’ father) and tries to palm the deed off on his own son, Arbaces. Prince Artaxerxes remains convinced of Arbace’s innocence and, acting on the advice of his sister Mandane and his lover Semira, he helps Arbaces to escape. Artaxerxes’ life comes under threat as Artabanes now intends to murder him with the aid of the jealous Rimenes (who was once also Semira’s lover). The final act finds Arbaces in prison. A whole cavalcade of misunderstandings, not to mention a poisoned chalice, ensue before order is at last - some three hours after the opera began - restored and all ends happily, and justly.

If it sounds complex, it is. The production is miraculous, calling on Orientalist ideas to underline the concept of an emotional distance that paradoxically make the whole all the more involving. Silent dancers surround the characters, mirroring their movements and sometimes even supporting them in position. Costumes for the characters themselves are intensely colourful, (sometimes invoking samurai?); the sets are no less impressive, right from the starlit opening scene onwards, through to the “bars” that come down to create the prison scene of the final act. Space is used exquisitely. The pit-based orchestra is intensely visible, and instrumentalists periodically make their way to share stage-space with the singers, which can add significantly to moments of great pomp. Singers also move to the smaller part of the stage in front of the pit, bringing them in very close physical proximity to the audience, a sort of hyper-intimacy that sits well with the productions’ ethos. The orchestra played wonderfully throughout.

The casting was magnificent. Counter-tenor Christopher Ainslie took the part of Artaxerxes. His woodwind and horns dominated aria, “In infancy, our hopes and fears” (opening of Act 2) was superbly delivered. In a cast such as this it really is difficult to isolate singers for praise. Perhaps Caitlin Hulcup’s Arbaces (a trouser role, as Arbaces is Artabanes’ son) comes in for special mention. She was supremely eloquent in her Act III air, “Water parted from the sea”; and yet Elizabeth Watts’ Mandane makes claim, too, perhaps especially for her Act II airs, the tender “If o’er the cruel Tyrant Love” and the feisty, defiant “Monster away”. As Semira, Arbaces’ sister, Rebecca Bottone shone. Good, too, to see a Jette Parker Young Artist, the talented Steven Ebel, as a fine Rimenes (an army general).

The work itself fully deserves this revival. A recording of Artaxerxes is available on Hyperion Dyad (CDD 22073) and the Hyperion Records website includes sound samples, but do hear this in its entirety. The run at the Linbury continues with performances on November 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th and 10th.

Colin Clarke

Picture © Richard Smith


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