Classical Opera Company - Artaxerxes - International Record Review

One of my most enjoyable days musically was November 7th, 2009, when I heard Arne's Artaxerxes at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre in the afternoon and the original version of Donizetti's Maria di Rohan in the Festival Hall in the evening.  Now, Classical Opera Company has committed to disc a recording of Artaxerxes based on the Linbury performances.  There is one change of cast, with Daniel Norman replacing Steven Ebel as Rimenes.

Arne's opera received its première on February 2nd, 1762.  Unfortunately, a fire in 1808 destroyed the music of the recitatives and finale, which, unlike the arias and duets, had not been set in print.  For Hyperion's recording (CDA67051/2), Peter Holman revised what recits there were, wrote some new ones and for the finale took material from Arne's Comus.  For the new version, conductor Ian Page has done similar work on recitatives, but for the final ensemble Duncan Druce has composed a new piece 'in the style of Arne'.  It is so apt that I wonder if one would have known it was not by Arne.

Artaxerxes is composed in the recitative/aria format, with two duets for Mandane and Arbaces, who are lovers.  She is the daughter of King Xerxes, he the son of the king's general Artabanes.  This last kills Xerxes for his own ends, then hands the bloody sword to Arbaces, who is seen carrying it.  That is not before the king's older son, Darius, is accused of the murder and put to death, his brother Artaxerxes becoming the new king.  Artabanes and his henchman Rimenes plan to poison him, but the plan is thwarted by news that Arbaces has escaped and defeated Rimenes.  Artabanes confesses and is banished.  Artaxerxes is united with his lover Semira, Artabane's daughter, and Arbaces with Mandane.  Arne's arias range from the caressing, like 'O too lovely', to the virtuosic 'The soldier, tired of war's alarms', which has brought recordings from Valerie Masterson, Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland respectively.

Page directs his players with style and sureness.  Arne makes glorious use of wind instruments in several numbers, of which 'Water parted from the sea', with clarinets, horns and bassoons, is one example.  He was the first English composer to write for clarinets.  How well the orchestra, and not only the woodwind, plays.

A few minor imperfections, though that may be too strong a word, probably will not bother most listeners.  Legato could be better from some of the singers.  In Artabane's 'Thy father! Away', Andrew Staples lacks the flowing emission of Hyperion's Ian Partridge, who was one of the clearest projectors of words and did not resort to overenunciation.  Caitlin Hulcup brings a tiny gear-change, as it were, to 'firm in' ('O too lovely'), whereas Patricia Spence elides the words as one would in speech, remains understandable and does not disturb the line.  Elizabeth Watts introduces a few light aspirates in 'Fly, soft ideas'.  Catherine Bott does not.

The present soloists provide much pleasure nevertheless.  Hulcup has fine breath control, as in the 20-seconds-long opening phrase of 'O too lovely' or in the broad treatment of the lines in the slow 'By that belov'd embrace', one of her best contributions.  It is followed by Mandane's condemnation of Artabane's judgement of his son.  The anger and venom summoned in Watt's vocal onslaught makes Mozart's Elettra seem no more than mildly put out.  Watts truly brings Mandane's feelings to life.  One would have doubted that she had it in her voice.  Staples brings firm projection to the aria with which Artabanes closes Act 2, which is almost too noble for the character.  Hulcup, in another slow aria, the melancholic 'Why is death' beginning Act 3, displays a rich line as Arbaces contemplates his end: a most suitable vocal colouring.  Her voice is possibly even richer in 'Water parted', which comes almost immediately afterwards: a fine aria splendidly sung.  In 'O, much lov'd son', Staples shows in the central section that he can deal cleanly with the bravura passages.  Watts attacks 'The soldier, tired' with gusto and gives a good impression, despite slight aspirating again.

The timbre of the other soprano, Rebecca Bottone, is brighter than Watt's warmer tones, and the recording renders it as rather hard.  She deals successfully with Semira's arias, soaring easily.  Daniel Norman possesses a darker, fuller, less open sound than Staples does, and one hears in his aria 'O let the danger of a son' a natural flow in the manner of Partridge, all smoothly projected.  Some of the best singing comes from Christopher Ainslie in the title-role.  In Act 1, Artaxerxes has a lovely solo, 'Fair Semira', which reveals how unforced is his vocalism.  Comparison with Christopher Robson on Hyperion shows that the drop on 'oppress'd' is managed seamlessly by Ainslie but not by Robson.  Ainslie, the only South African countertenor of my experience, is also agile enough in more ornate music.

My few reservations will be as nothing to many listeners and certainly should not deter anyone from acquiring this admirable set.  Maybe Classical Opera Company will record Comus one day.

International Record Review
01 February 2011