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Classical Opera Company - Artaxerxes - Opera


01 May 2011
Opera
Brian Robins

Thomas Arne's Artaxerxes provides an excellent riposte to those who would have it that serious English opera lay dead and buried during the 275-odd years between Dido and Aeneas and Peter Grimes.  First given at Covent Garden in February 1762, it became highly successful, remaining in the repertoire until well into the 19th century.  Sometimes referred to as an English opera seria, Artaxerxes is so only in the sense that the libretto is an adaptation by the composer of a heroic and frequently set book by Metastasio.  But Arne's musical treatment expands far beyond seria conventions, eschewing lengthy da capo arias in favour of a variety of concise, frequently richly-orchestrated airs and a couple of duets.

The opera survives lacking the recitatives and a final chorus, but the published orchestral score and libretto enables the reconstruction heard in the present recording, which followed a Covent Garden production with these forces in 2009.  It is, however, misleading, to put it mildly, for Linn to claim this as ‘the first complete recording' of Arne's ‘lost opera' since the 1995 Hyperion recording did precisely the same thing and is equally ‘complete'.  Indeed Peter Holman's plain recitative accompaniments on that recording are to be preferred, being much more inventive than the sparse chords favoured by Page, particularly his bizarre use of spread cello chords.  Holman and Duncan Druce have produced suitably celebratory final choruses for the respective recordings.

Burney, always ready with a dig at his former master, complained that Arne had ‘crouded the airs...with most of the Italian divisions and difficulties which had ever been heard at the opera.' That is certainly true of the sorely fried Mandane, a role that culminates in the virtuoso showpiece ‘The soldier tir'd', here sung with dazzling accuracy and gleaming tone by Elizabeth Watts.  Her voice is bigger than we're today accustomed to in this kind of work, but it's used throughout with great musicality.  Her love Arbaces, falsely accused of the murder of Xerxes by his father Artabanes, is given some of Arne's most affecting airs.  Both dramatically and musically Caitlin Hulcup is superb; one need listen only to the exquisite shaping of ‘O too lovely', not to mention a perfectly executed turn later in this same ravishing lovely aria, to be aware of artistry of the highest quality.  Artabanes is a highly complex villain, sung and acted far more convincingly by Andrew Staples than by the soft-grained tenor of Ian Partridge on the Hyperion set, a generally lacklustre affaire devoid of any sense of theatre.  Certainly the countertenor Christopher Ainslie is a much stronger King Artaxerxes than Hyperion's insecure Christopher Robson, while the cast is more than satisfactorily rounded off by Rebecca Bottone and Daniel Norman.  Bravo to all concerned, and especially to Ian Page for bringing together a splendid young team and inspiring his fine orchestra to such alert, incisive playing.  With this set, Artaxerxes has well and truly come in from the cold to earn a justly honoured place in the pantheon of opera history.


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