A warm welcome to the first recording of this opera, a work of great historical importance and musically fascinating. Thomas Arne, the leading English composer of his time for the theatre, wanted to write serious as well as comic English operas, and decided that Italian opera seria should serve, on the literary side, as his model; he chose the most famous of all the Metastasio librettos, Artaserse, as the basis for his first (and last) attempt at the genre. It is generally supposed that the translation was his own work. He performed the opera at Covent Garden in 1762 with considerable success and it remained a favourite for many years. He never followed up that success, and nor, regrettably, did anyone else. But perhaps there were reasons for that. Metastasio, when translated into English, provides a libretto in rather elaborate, flowery language which is not really very well suited to the kind of music that English composers traditionally wrote for the theatre – and it would have worked even less well had Arne tried a more Italianate style. Arne did not employ the Italian da capo aria but kept, for the most part, to the simpler and more direct forms, even strophic ones, used in the English theatre. English vocal music of this period has quite a distinctive manner, tuneful, rather short-breathed, often with a faintly ‘folky’ flavour. It does not naturally reflect the exalted emotional manner of an opera seria text. This statement possibly has wider implications about the English temperament as well as the English language; but as far as Artaxerxes is concerned the result is a curious hybrid.
Nevertheless, the music is enormously enjoyable, full of good melodies, richly orchestrated, never (unlike Italian operas of the time) long-winded. Several of its numbers became popular favourites in Arne’s time, and for long after – many readers will know the splendid and very brilliant final air, “The soldier tir’d of war’s alarms”, which Dame Joan Sutherland has recorded (Decca, 12/60 – nla). The story of Artaxerxes is a typical Metastasian one, with ‘treasonous designs’ and misunderstandings, and plenty of opportunity for the expression of strong and varied emotion. Much of the best and most deeply felt music goes to Arbaces, originally a castrato role written for the famous Tenducci, at mezzo-soprano pitch: here it is very finely and expressively sung by Patricia Spence. She begins with a big D major air demanding considerable agility and continues with a richly accompanied piece, very original in line: then in Act 2 she has a fine two-tempo air and an eloquent farewell piece as Arbaces is taken off in chains (suspected of regicide); and lastly there is the admired “Water parted from the sea”, a minuet air, very English in style. Spence uses more vibrato than anyone else in the cast but her warmth of tone and expressive power are ample justification. Mandane, Arbaces’s beloved, composed for Arne’s mistress Charlotte Brent, is another rewarding part and is finely sung here by Catherine Bott, bright in tone and true in pitch and scrupulous in her verbal articulation, who can encompass both the charming English ditties and the more Italianate virtuoso pieces – the semiquavers in “The soldier tir’d” are dispatched with real brilliance and precision. The opera begins with a duet for these two that hints at (and indeed could have influenced) Mozart’s “Ruhe sanft” in Zaide.
Philippa Hyde sings very gracefully and charmingly in the role of Semira but does not always bring sufficient clarity to the words. As the conspiring Artabanes, Ian Partridge sings as clearly and intelligently as always. The role of Artaxerxes, the king, is taken by Christopher Robson, an excellent stylist, though this castrato part is bound to be testing for a countertenor and he is often covered by the orchestra. The smaller part of Rimenes, an insinuating traitor, is neatly sung and characterized by Richard Edgar-Wilson.
Arne’s orchestral style here is very rich, with much prominent wind writing; sometimes, as I have indicated, the singers – given less prominence by the engineers than one might expect – do not ride the full textures very comfortably. Roy Goodman’s accompaniments are not generally very subtle or carefully shaded. The original score does not survive complete, a victim (like so many) of the frequent theatre fires of the time; Peter Holman has done a predictably unobtrusive and stylish job of reconstructing some of the lost recitatives for this recording. This is certainly a set that I can recommend warmly to anyone curious about this byway of eighteenth-century opera, and to anyone who is drawn to Arne’s very individual and appealing melodic style.'