Eighteenth-century English composer Thomas Arne’s three-act opera Artaxerxes premiered at Covent Garden’s Theatre Royal – now better known as the Royal Opera House – in 1762. The English-language libretto – translated by Arne from Pietro Metastasio’s Italian libretto Artaserse – is loosely based on the historical figure Artaxerxes I, who ruled Persia from 465 to 424 BCE.
The plot shows young prince Artaxerxes supporting his innocent friend Arbaces, who has been found guilty of killing Xerxes, the king and Artaxerxes’s father. He has been condemned to death by the real murderer, his own father, Artabanes.
This recording by opera company The Mozartists and conductor Ian Page follows a 2009 production of the opera at the Royal Opera House, directed by Martin Duncan and designed by Johan Engels. It was originally released in 2010 on Linn Records. This rerelease came out on 14 May 2021 on the Signum Classics label. It is available as a CD, digital stream or download.
The cast consists of countertenor Christopher Ainslie in the title role, soprano Elizabeth Watts as his sister Mandane, mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup in a trouser role as Arbaces, tenor Andrew Staples as Artabanes, general of the army and Arbaces’s father, soprano Rebecca Bottone as Artabanes’s daughter Semira, and tenor Daniel Norman as army captain Rimenes.
Arne’s opera was very popular during his lifetime. The score was published in 1762, but without the recitatives and final chorus. The original performing version of the score was lost in the fire that destroyed the Theatre Royal in 1808. This version has recitatives composed by Ian Page, with the finale reconstructed by Duncan Druce.
Today, it’s fair to say that the opera isn’t among the more commonly heard repertory, while its historical subject matter might not appeal to some audiences, particularly those not that familiar with opera. However, the English libretto does it make it nicely accessible to the English-speaking listener.
The music is beautiful and delightfully brought to life by the orchestra under Page’s crisp direction. Ainslie is outstanding in the title role; the rest of the cast are also excellent, with Watts and Bottone particularly shining. The recording is bright and clear. It’s definitely worth listening to, even if you’re not familiar with the opera, and repays repeated attention.
The CD comes with a comprehensive booklet that includes a track listing, artist biographies, photos from the 2009 production, a synopsis, the full libretto and an essay by Page introducing the opera.
• Price: £20.99
• Format: two-CD set, digital stream, download
• Run time: 137 minutes (68 minutes disk 1, 69 minutes disk 2)
• Tracks: 33 (31 on disk 1, 28 on disk 2)
• More information: www.mozartists.com
A bright and lively recording of an English-language opera that is little-performed today but was the toast of the Royal Opera House in its time.