Classical Opera Company - Artaxerxes - Fanfare

In a lengthy career especially notable for its theatrical music-both interpolated and full scores-Artaxerxes was Arne's greatest hit. It was premiered at Covent Garden in 1762, and received 111 performances before 1790. As the composer's article in Grove Istates, Artaxerxes "was the only English opera after the Italian manner to hold its place on the stage until the 19th century." The melodramatic situations in the libretto, all built around a villainous general who accidentally incriminates his son while misdirecting evidence from one of his own murders, definitely helped, though Arne's inept versification ("Cold blood from ev'ry vein distill / and clog my lab'ring heart") of a well-worn libretto probably neutralized whatever advantage his book had. Where Artaxerxes shines is in its music.

Arne wasn't adept at reflecting psychological depths or shifting emotions in music, as Handel was, but he knew how to create memorable set pieces fitting in any of several opera seriaexpressive formats. "If the River's Swelling Waves" is a cleverly composed nature analogy aria, for example, the furious energy in its string of 16th notes battling but unable to upset the defiantly soaring thematic vocal line. Slower pieces of rich melodic beauty abound, none more so than "Why Is Death For Ever Late." an eloquent minor-key galant serenade whose sensuousness is darkened by a stark, Purcellian simplicity. Then there are the anthem-like pieces, such as "Let Not Rage Thy Bosom Firing," its steady tread and gliding line contributing to a sense of soothing confidence, and the clarinets and horns surrounding "In Infancy, Our Hopes and Fears," a simple, good English tune, the sort an audience would want in song form to sing with family and friends. Not everything in the score rises to the level of the best, and there are several instances of good themes offset by a tide of sequential harmonies, but the opera's popularity is easy to understand.

This is only the second generally available recording of Artaxerxes, with the previous one, featuring Roy Goodman leading the Parley of Instruments. I find Goodman's pacing too fast in many of the slower pieces, where Page allows "O Too Lovely, Too Unkind," and "Why Is Death For Ever Late" to unfold naturally, forming a ravishing counterpoint to the more furious arias.

The Arbaces of Caitlin Hulcup (Page) and Patricia Spence (Goodman) provide an embarrassment of riches. Hulcup supplies a creamy mezzo with a brilliant top, while Spence's voice is darker, more contralto-like, with a sharp focus I find compelling. "Amid a Thousand Racking Woes," a coloratura showpiece, finds both not only managing the piece with confidence, but with a convincing dramatic awareness. Hulcup edges Spence out only by virtue of Page's slightly less breathless tempo, which allows her to articulate all the figurations cleanly and clearly.

As Mandane, Elizabeth Watts (Page) is excellent: a fine soprano who handles the coloratura well, if with slight smearing, in the difficult opening passage of "Fly, Soft Ideas, Fly." She brings good interpretative skills to the mix, too. Catherine Bott (Goodman) is just that little bit better, all around: a more finely etched, intrinsically attractive voice; all coloratura managed gracefully; the interpretation more specific, creating moments of heartstopping beauty.

Philippa Hyde (Goodman) doesn't enunciate well, though she possesses an agile, lyrical soprano. She's better in Semira's more sedate offerings, such as "How Hard Is the Fate," than in "If the River's Swelling Waves," where she lacks the assertiveness this piece calls for. Rebecca Bottone (Page) has a very bright-edged voice that takes to the latter piece extremely well-nimble figurations, clear enunciation-though she could employ more of the tonal variety she occasionally reveals.

I'm not completely taken with the performance of either Artaxerxes. Both countertenors suffer from hooded tone and unwavering color, while each also brings a broad range of dynamics and clarity of enunciation to the table. But a military role such as this in a Baroque opera requires a clarion voice, and that's something neither Christopher Ainslie (Page) nor Christopher Robson (Goodman) can provide. Between the two, I marginally prefer Ainslie, with a less supple tone and yielding manner.

As Artabanes, Andrew Staples (Page) is bright and excellent in the slower pages, such as the slower portions of "O, Much Lov'd Son," but his lower range is colorless, and he has minor problems with the figurations in "The Tidings Shall Relate." Ian Partridge (Goodman) has an inherently softer tone, arguably unsuitable for yet another military role, but he characterizes to an even greater extent that Staples, and has no trouble with the faster, more ornamented passages.

Richard Edgar-Wilson (Goodman) as Rimenes has a fairly dull tenor that opens up brightly as it rises. The lower notes are unsteady, though, as "When Real Joys We Miss" shows. Daniel Norman (Page) is better, as well as paying more attention to the text, building an effective character out of his solos.

If that leaves you confused about which version to get, perhaps the work's finale will help. Along with the original recitatives it was lost in a fire, a fate that many of Arne's theatrical works shared thanks to London's wooden theaters and primitive lighting systems. The recitatives haven't proven too difficult to replace, but various attempts have been made over the years to provide a suitable finale to the work. Page employs Duncan Druce's new version. It sounds closer in style than Goodman's to the rest of Artaxerxes, a fast-moving bass buoying aloft a chorus and series of duets that go out in a victorious blaze of glory.

For that reason, as well as for Hulcup, Bottone, and Page's more expressively varied tempos, I prefer the newer recording. I'm not about to toss out Goodman, however, not with Bott's sensational Mandane and Partridge's veteran Artabanes. Suffice to say that you can't go wrong with either.

01 July 2011