Saturday 7 November 2009

Review of Arne's Artaxerxes

I have long been familiar with the aria A soldier tired from Thomas Arne's opera Artxerxes because I, like many people I suspect, listened to it regularly as part of Joan Sutherland's wonderful boxed set, The Art of the Prima Donna. I was always curious as to why the rest of the opera was never performed. Now it has been.

Ian Page's Classical Opera Company are currently performing Martin Duncan's colourful new production of Arne's Artaxerxes at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre. And the explanation for its lack of performance before lies in the problem of the parts. The opera's score and parts were burned when the theatre (Covent Garden's predecessor) burned in 1808. The opera's full score had been published, but without the recitative and the opera's finale.

We also have the original libretto, so now Ian Page has written replacement recitatives and Duncan Druce has crafted a new finale. It is lucky that Arne's full score was published because no-one would quite have expected him to use such a full orchestra. Once of the joys of the piece is the richness of the orchestration, Arne uses horns, oboes and bassoons with regularity, has a few numbers with flutes and with clarinets and even has trumpets and timpani in the overture and the finales. And, of course, that famous aria, which I referred to above, uses a trumpet solo as well.

Arne made his own English translation of Metastasio's Artaserse, a libretto also set by Gluck, J.C. Bach and Hasse. Arne's version was premiered in 1762 at the Theatre Royal (the predecessor to the current Covent Garden). The cast included two castratos (as Artaxerxes and Arbaces), plus Arne's pupil and ex-mistress, Charlotte Brent, as Mandane (who gets some of the best music of course). It was incredibly popular and went on being performed into the 19th century as Bishop produced his own version after the original parts burned. But the programme for last nights performance (5th November) was frustratingly vague as to when the last performance of the opera was.

Martin Duncan and his designer Johan Engels set the piece in a spare, vivid blue box which filled all the stage and expanded into the auditorium. Engels created a walkway round the pit, which became a white box set into the stage area. This looked good, but meant that the front rows of the stalls had to be removed to fit it in. Also, the extra instrumentalists (trumpets, clarinets, timpani) had to play from the side of the stage as the only way into the pit was across the stage and down a set of impressive steps, so there was no slipping in and out easily. I felt sorriest for the two flute players who were rarely used, but had to sit quietly in the pit for the whole of the performance (around 2 hours 20 minutes of music, plus 2 intervals).

Above the stage, Engels had suspended blue twinkly lights and there were aubergine coloured screens which raised and lowered for entrances. The only extravagance was the royal throne which was part throne, part costume and the wearer had to be strapped in. The money went on the costumes which were all gorgeously coloured, in exaggerated Georgian style, with wigs, but long hair and expansively wide hips on the coats and dresses. There was also an oriental hint. The fabrics of the clothes seemed to be made from Kimono fabric (Artaxerxes had a wonderful orange fabric with cranes on it). And the 4 actors who doubled as supers, servants and furniture movers, looked a bit like samurai. In fact, the costumes reminded me in spirit of those for Covent Garden's production of Mitridate re di Ponto (which was designed, I think, by Paul Brown).

The shoes were to die for, high-heeled and gorgeously coloured; even Andrew Staples had shiny black heeled numbers, with Laboutin style red insteps on the soles.

There are 28 arias in the piece, and Arne seems to deliberately keep things moving. Very few of the arias are Da Capo, and the recitative moved swiftly as well. The outer acts came in at just under an hour each and the middle act was only 35 minutes.

The title role, Artaxerxes, is not the biggest role. Christopher Ainslie was announced has having a viral infection, but apart from his voice lacking all its colours, I didn't detect that much to apologise for. The biggest male role is Arbaces, sung by Caitlin Hulcup. Basically Arbaces' father, Artabanes (Andrew Staples) has killed Xerxes (Artaxerxes father) and is plotting against Artaxerxes so that Arbaces can be put on the throne. Artabanes unwittingly implicates Arbaces in his plot and has to condemn him as a traitor. This causes confusion with Arbaces sister Semira (Rebecca Bottone), who is in love with Artaxerxes, and Artaxerxes sister Mandane (Elizabeth Watts), who is in love with Arbaces. The only other cast member is Rimenes (Steven Ebel), who is a supporter of Artabanes and in love with Semira.

Arne writes in the galant style which predominated between Handel and Mozart (very much in the J.C.Bach mould). The arias are lyrically attractive, often with some pretty tricky singing, though virtuoso singing for its own sake seems to have not been the point. I think the opera was popular because of its melodic attractiveness and lack of deep complexity. It is attractive and fun. The characters are barely more than puppets and you don't feel deeply for any of them. Andrew Staples was rather too nice as the villain. And though both women had plaintive arias, you never quite felt sorry for them; Arne did not pull the heart strings the way Handel did.

I felt that Duncan's very stylised production rather put the audience at one remove, at times, he had the 4 attendants manipulating the singers. And the large, stylised costumes meant that the show had an abstract, unreal effect. You wanted to find out what the piece would be like in a more naturalistic setting. That said, Caitlin Hulcup impressed as Arbaces, with some very moving arias, though you wanted to kick him (the character, not the singer) for so pig-headedly refusing to explain that it was his father 'what done it'. Rebecca Bottone brought a nice edge to Semira's character and Elizabeth Watt's neatly caught Mandane's dilemma at being trapped between love for Arbaces and anger at her father's death and desire for retribution.

Frankly it is not Metastasio's nicest plot. But Duncan, Engels and the cast gave a terrific performance.

Ian Page and his band accompanied in fine style, contributing some lovely instrumental solos, though there were times when I would have liked a larger body of strings.

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