Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Thomas Arne - Artaxerxes - Page, Classical Opera Company







Metastasian opera seria had a long life and was the supreme type of serious opera for many composers. So it is not surprising that when Thomas Arne came to write a serious opera for Covent Garden in 1762 he should set a libretto by Metastasio, albeit one translated into English. Metastasio’s Artaserse was originally written in 1729 and had been set by over ninety composers including Vinci, Gluck and J.C. Bach. Arne used his own translation, something which caused quite a bit of comment at the time but his text seems quite serviceable, albeit with one or two Gilbertian moments. Artaxerxes was popular and remained in the Covent Garden repertory until the late 1830s but it then fell out of use (with one notable exception) until Ian Page and the Classical Opera Company revivedimage it last year. The notable exception involved Joan Sutherland who recorded The soldier, tir’d of war’s alarms on her Art of the Prima donna set. Anyone who heard that stunning account of the aria must have been puzzled about the opera’s absence from disc. The problem was that in 1808, all the manuscript materials were destroyed in a fire at the Theatre Royal. Arne had published the arias, duets and ensembles (except for the finale), but there was no score of the complete opera. The later 19th century performances were in a version by Henry Bishop. Luckily the complete libretto survived, so for the 2009 revival, Page re-composed the recitatives and commissioned Duncan Druce to create a new finale, It is this that has been recorded in the wake of the live performances at Covent Garden. Artaserse is, frankly, not one of Metastasio’s best libretti. It requires a substantial suspension of disbelief when it comes to the character of the hero, Arbaces. But it was Arbaces’ very nobility which probably was the cause of the opera’s popularity. Eighteenth century audiences liked seeing princes being put through the wringer and displaying a profound nobility of characters in the most trying of unlikely circumstances. Within these limits the result is a remarkably fluent and dramatic opera. Arne keeps the pace going so that the entire opera, all three acts of it, lasts a bit over two hours even though it includes some 29 arias, duets and ensembles. Arne’s set-pieces are generally short, but they often require virtuoso skills. They never overstay their welcome. As this recording came after a series of performances, the cast are all firmly in charge of the drama and the record make rather gripping - and sometimes - thrilling listening. The cast’s diction is uniformly excellent so that, though a complete libretto is provided, you never need to refer to it in order to follow the complexities of the plot. Duncan Druce’s finale concludes things in fine style. The orchestra provides strong support and dispatches Arne’s lively overture with élan. Arne writes for quite a big band, with horns, trumpets and timpani.

Anyone with an interest in 18th century opera ought to try the disc. They won’t be disappointed.-- Robert Hugill


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