Classical Opera Company - Artaxerxes - Audiophile Audition
04 March 2011Audiophile Audition
The best-known work of Thomas Augustine Arne is a little ditty lifted from his opera Alfred, "Rule, Britannia!" Arne wrote much else, in all genres, but was especially known for his stage works, of which Artaxerxes (1762) was his crowning achievement. It held the boards in England well into the nineteenth century even though all of the recitatives and finale were lost in a fire that destroyed the Theatre Royal in 1808. The remainder of the opera, including the libretto (which Arne himself had translated from the Italian of Metastasio) was published earlier and so survived. Following the fire, the opera was performed with the missing numbers supplied by Sir Henry Bishop, music director of Covent Garden. Bishop didn't bother to match Arne's style but wrote in a style that would have been au fait circa 1810. For this revival, our conductor, Ian Page, recreated the recitatives, and musicologist Duncan Druse, the finale, hoping to do a bit more justice to Arne.
Artaxerxes is the only known example of an English opera seria based on a libretto by the most celebrated librettist of the eighteenth century, Pietro Metastasio, though over eight hundred operas based on his libretti were produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Metastasio's Artaserse, penned in 1729, was set by more than ninety composers. Ian Page, who wrote the booklet notes, supposes that Arne would have been familiar with the setting by Johann Hasse, which was staged in London in 1754.
The libretto includes the usual complications and intrigues, which I'll summarize as briefly as possible. Persian King Xerxes has banished Arbaces from the kingdom hoping to protect the honor of his daughter Mandane, who is in love with the young man. In revenge, Arbace's father, Artabanes, kills the king and then trades his bloody sword for Arbace's. Artabanes convinces Xerxes' heir apparent, his son Artaxerxes, that his brother Darius is responsible. Artabanes has Darius executed, but then Arbaces is discovered with the bloody sword, and rather than implicate his father, gives himself up to prison.
Artabanes recruits Rimenes, a captain of the army, to kill Artaxerxes, appealing to Rimenes' jealousy over being spurned by his daughter Semira, who is in love with Artaxerxes. In the meantime, Artaxerxes can't settle on the fate of his friend Arbaces and so asks Artabanes to decide for him. Shockingly, Artabanes condemns his own son to death.
Unable to see his friend executed, Artaxexes springs Arbaces from prison, after which Artabanes and Rimenes show up with the same idea in mind. Assuming that Arbaces has already been executed, the two decide to avenge themselves by poisoning Artaxerxes at his coronation ceremony.
Later, Artaxerxes is about to drink the poisoned cup when Mandanes announces that Arbaces has quelled the rebellion of the army and killed its leader, Rimenes. When Arbaces appears, Artaxerxes offers the cup to him, asking Arbaces to drink to him as a token of his loyalty. Seeing this, Artabanes is forced to reveal the plot and his other crimes in order to save his son. Out of respect for his friend Arbaces, Artaxerxes banishes Artabanes rather than order his execution. To general rejoicing, the two sets of lovers are united, nuptials to follow.
On top of the convolutions of this plot, Arne added insult to injury with a translation that is stilted and otherwise hardly the quintessence of English poesy. Then again, that can be said of many another eighteenth-century libretto that nonetheless contributed to a successful opera, which Artaxerxes certainly is. The grand yet lively overture sets the tone for the whole work, which is full of fine melodies as well as airs carefully crafted to suit the actions and actors alike. For example, Arbaces' first air, "Amid a thousand racking woes," establishes his noble upright nature with its scoring for horns, while Simra's air "How hard is the fate" captures perfectly the essence of lament through the use of the flutes, as does Arbaces' Second Act air "By that belov'd embrace" though Arne here relies on the sad strains of oboes. Thomas Arne was one of the first English composers to include clarinets in his orchestra, and this adds a good deal of color to his scoring. Too, Arne caught the winds of change blowing through late-eighteenth-century opera houses and thus eschewed lengthy da capo arias and coloratura display in favor of simplified vocal writing that stresses emotion over fireworks.
This performance from Ian Page and The Classical Opera Company has all the excitement of discovery. From the first notes of the overture, the players announce that this is a major occasion, and as far as I'm concerned, the orchestra deserves equal praise for bringing this music to such compelling life. The cast is mostly a strong one as well, with special praise due Elizabeth Watts and Rebecca Bottone, who give the two love objects a real sense of dignity and integrity, as well as sing with beauty. Caitlin Hulcup's mezzo is a bit subdued in the earlier recitatives, though she finally unleashes some of the most emotionally wrought music in the opera. She also manages some of the more colorful writing in the score, especially the high tessitura in her part, with energy and aplomb. Andrew Staples and Daniel Norman are commendably unlikeable as the two villains of the piece, Norman especially nasty as the amoral Rimenes. Artabanes is a conflicted villain, and Staples conveys his scruples well in the Act Two air "Thou, like the glorious sun." Christopher Ainslie's clear, ringing countertenor gives distinction to the role of Artaxerxes, which is actually a relatively small part-he has a grand total of two airs. However, the first, "In infancy, our hopes and fears," is especially memorable for its tender nostalgia and its scoring for clarinets and solo horn, while the second, "Though oft a cloud with envious shade," is one of the more dramatic numbers in the score.
The Linn engineers provide a studio recording that is simply superb. Orchestra and singers are optimally balanced, the orchestra placed at a realistic remove yet captured in all its glory, the contributions by the winds, brass, and timpani prominent and clarion clear. SACD adds a convincing sense of depth and amplitude to the proceedings. Really, I can't recommend this release too highly. It should be in the collection of every opera lover.
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