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Classical Opera Company - Artaxerxes - The Consort


01 July 2012
The Consort
Frauke J├╝rgensen

The opera Artaxerxes, composed in 1762 by Thomas Arne (1710-78), was a very successful opera in its own time, but it has been long absent from the operatic canon, for the simple reason that the manuscript (and thus all the recitatives and the opera's finale) perished in a fire in 1808. This recording follows a new performing edition prepared for the Royal Opera's 2009 production, with new recitatives composed by Ian Page, and a finale by Duncan Druce. The patches in no way disturb the integrity of the work for the listener; if anything, the recitatives are more interesting than one generally expects from that period, and the quality of the performance makes me regret that I did not see the 2009 production.

The opera itself is a great deal of fun: there are plenty of dead bodies, intrigue, poison, and enough coloratura indignation to satisfy any Olympic desires of 'faster, higher, louder!' By contrast, the lyrical laments allow the singers to show exquisite control of sustained phrases. Many of the arias are quite short, allowing for a great deal of variety, and enabling each character to have several; good numbers. The overture makes an exciting start, and its music is exuberantly attacked by the brass and timpani. Throughout the opera, the woodwinds are given unusually good musical lines, with some lovely passages, particularly for oboes and clarinets.

All of the small set of characters are very well cast. The prize for best-sung recitative must go to Daniel Norman, as the traitorous conspirator, Rimenes. By turns mocking, slimy, and downright evil-sounding, he displays a wide range of vocal colouring which he also carries into his aria, 'To sigh and complain'. None of the other singers are far behind him in this respect, however; the clarity with which the text is conveyed in both recitatives and arias is both unusual and commendable. Andrew Staples as Artabanes, the originator of the plot against the crown, but delightfully entangled in his own treachery, is subtle and silky. Rebecca Bottone brings a bit of hard edge to Semira, which very effectively portrays her situation as a more-or-less helpless pawn in the situation. Christopher Ainslie's Artaxerxes has a warmth and depth of tone that is very suited to the young king, who comes across as thoughtful and gentle.

Elizabeth Watts' Mandane and Caitlin Hulcup's Arbaces, however, are doubly impressive, since they are so well-matched as a dramatic couple that it almost appears as if they are soprano and mezzo-soprano versions of the same voice. Watts, who first impresses with her warm, clear sound and easy elegance, later shows the courage to make some aggressively ugly sounds in 'Monster, away!', to create a fantastically frightening moment. Conversely, Hulcup initially drives her coloratura aria to the limits of angry virtuosity, and then delicately shapes the doleful 'Water parted from the sea', to mourn Arbaces' impending exile.

Altogether, the sense of cheerful abandon that began the overture pervades the entire recording, and that was what I liked best: it feels like a live performance. Each singer of this strong cast, the orchestra, and the continuo team are all willing to take risks together in the service of drama.


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