There is always something slightly suspicious about musical works that have languished unperformed in the archives. Usually they have remained there for good reason; the work is not terribly good, or so unwieldy in its technical and practical demands as to render performance more of a mission than a masterpiece. In the case of Thomas Arne's 1762 opera Artaxerxes however, explanation comes in rather more dramatic form. In 1808 the Theatre Royal (precursor to today's Royal Opera House) was entirely destroyed by fire, and along with it the only score of Arne's work. The opera's duets and arias had been published, as was customary, but neither the Act III finale nor a single recitative survived.
Performances were staged during the nineteenth century thanks to the addition of some rather anachronistic recitatives, but the current production by Ian Page and the Classical Opera Company represents one of the first contemporary attempts to restore and reimagine the work as it might have been. With Page himself providing the recitatives (to a complete surviving libretto) and Duncan Druce the additional music for Act III, the resulting work is that rarest of things – a genuine undiscovered delight.
Composed in the same year as Gluck's Orfeo, just three years after the death of Handel, Artaxerxes is a rather unexpected work. Largely ignoring the da capo conventions of the Italian tradition, its arias take a variety of forms, with a predominance of short rondo-style movements. While the lyrical melodies are as predictable as they are lovely, there is much in Arne's rich and innovative orchestral scoring that anticipates early Mozart, and the sheer variety and colour of orchestral textures on offer would have kept any listener entertained on Friday night, even without Johan Engels' magical set and costume designs.
Were the music devoid of any appeal in fact, the Royal Opera House's production of Artaxerxes would still be overwhelmingly worth seeing. The unprecedentedly lavish costumes are encrusted and embellished, patterned and panelled within an inch of their lives, as the fashions of Elizabethan England and the Persia of Shah Abbas I appear to meet head on. The overall effect is of having broken into the British Museum or V&A at night, and watching the mannequins come to life, playing out their stiffly exotic drama of love and ambition. This effect is further heightened by the direction, which sees characters moving in deliberately rigid and formalised fashion, nodding both to the dramatic conventions of Arne's own day, and providing a distinctly contemporary commentary on the artificial nature of this baroque drama. The masked ninja-like figures that direct the drama – quite literally moving each character into position, like the bunraku puppeteers familiar to opera audiences from Minghella's Butterfly – add an additional touch of stylised exoticism to proceedings. The relative simplicity of the set, with its block colour and cleverly descending panels provides an appropriately muted frame for the peacock-like singers in all their colourful splendour.
In terms of plot, Artaxerxes is both typical and entirely incomprehensible – largely owing to the similarity in the names of many of the central characters. Suffice it to say we find ourselves in Persia at the court of King Xerxes at the moment of his murder by ambitious courtier Artabanes, who seeks to place his own son Arsaces upon the throne. Sundry princesses, loyal companions and lecherous generals from the central depot of baroque opera all come together to forge a plot whose convulsions culminate in a joyous crowning of rightful king Artaxerxes and the reunion of two sets of young lovers.
The intimacy of the Linbury, so perfect for the contemporary works it most often houses, proved here that it works equally well in the elegant fantasy of eighteenth century opera. The unusual performing space, with its sunken exposed pit, was fully exploited by director Martin Duncan, who celebrated the orchestral strengths of the music by blurring the divide between pit and stage, placing musicians (notably a pair of early clarinets) onstage, and having at least one aria sung from within the pit. This spatial fluidity and informality worked well in conjunction with the stiffer, more formalised movement of the singers, creating a gently unselfconscious sort of meta-theatre.
The light and only occasionally virtuosic score was well suited to the young cast of singers fielded by the ROH. Chief among these was Caitlin Hulcup as the wrongfully-accused Arbaces, son of Artabanes. Hers was the stand-out performance of the night, drawing much merited applause for her beautifully controlled legato singing and expressiveness of tone. Whether it was Ian Page's reconstructed score that failed to flow or the over-zealous characterisation of the singers, something failed to click in many of the recitative passages, which felt lumpy and were unmellowed for the most part by orchestral accompaniment (as specified by Arne). Hulcup alone brought both character and line to her sung dialogue – a skill that Andrew Staples in particular, as a dramatic if somewhat frenetic Artabanes, could do well to emulate.
Elizabeth Watts and Rebecca Bottone as Arbaces' beloved Mandane and his sister Semira respectively, brought some vocal weight to the cast. The contrasting tonal colour of their voices helped characterise their splendid sparring music, and while Bottone proved herself consistently agile, Watts grew from a slightly timorous start into full-blooded and securely virtuoso singing in Act III.
Christopher Ainslie, in the title role of Artaxerxes, proved somewhat underwhelming. The part is not a grateful one in terms of range, sitting rather lower than Ainslie seemed comfortable, resulting in a wooliness of tone that muddied some of the lovely melody lines.
In the villains' camp, Steven Ebel gave a solid performance as the remorselessly two-dimensional Rimenes. Yielding some of the most (unintentionally) comic vocal writing of the piece, Ebel made a virtue of his character's plodding pomposity with his lyrical but full-toned delivery, and brought some distinctly disturbing and sinister energy to his seduction scene. Andrew Staples by contrast failed to convince as the arch-villain of the piece, downplaying Artabanes' ambition and stressing instead the misguided devotion to his son. Possessed of a pleasingly bright English tenor voice, Staples still lacks the vocal weight to fully own such a part.
From the moment you enter the Linbury and see the midnight blue stage with its twinkling lights and sharp white lines of the orchestra pit you are transported by Martin Duncan and his creative team into a truly fantastical world. A glimpse both into the exotic East and into the forgotten corners of English music, Artaxerxes makes for an evening of impressively elegant novelty.
Photo Credits: Richard Hubert Smith
Interview Elizabeth Watts on Artaxerxes
Interview Antonio Pappano on conducting Christof Loy's Lulu
Opera Review Christof Loy's Lulu at Covent Garden (May '09)
Opera Review Bryn Terfel Wagner's Flying Dutchman at Royal Opera House