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A Superb Work

Thomas Arne's
'Artaxerxes' -
heard by

'Roy Goodman and his team give their all ...'

Thomas Arne: Artaxerxes. © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

This recording was originally made in 1995; it deserves to survive at least as long as the forty-one years Artaxerxes himself managed on the throne. Of course the main credit is Arne's. Remembered mainly as the composer of 'Rule, Britannia' at a time when Britons were indeed less slavish than now, Arne should have continued with this work of 1762 a noble school of opera in English as begun by Purcell's Dido and Aeneas long before. It was not to be, for English snobbery preferred the largely incomprehensible operatic Italian as easier to gossip through. Artaxerxes remains, therefore, a largely isolated masterpiece.

The original libretto was by Metastasio, Englished anonymously. Xerxes, Great King of Persia, was indeed murdered in 465 BC by Artabanes, the operatic scamp who happened also to be his uncle (Ian Partridge). Thus far history. Perhaps Xerxes as Ahasuerus had previously taken the Jewish Esther to wife. Thus far the Bible. About the succeeding antics of the court we know little. Maybe Artabanes handed over his bloodied and incriminating sword to Patricia Spence as his son Arbaces, loyal companion to the Artaxerxes of Christopher Robson, now seated on a somewhat rocky throne. The immediate entourage of the new king is represented by two sisters, Mandane his own, and Semira that of Arbaces, with Richard Edgar-Wilson as a Rimenes and supplementary evil conscience for Artabanes. There is of course much love in the air, and it is initial misunderstandings that make the palace action go round.

But towards the end of Act 2 the composer, who had hitherto lavished infinite care on a succession of ravishing arias, shows himself also a superb dramatist. The Mandane of Catherine Bott, almost anticipating Mozart's Queen of Night, manages towering wrath against Artabanes as a villain apparently willing to destroy his son.

Listen -- Monster, away! (Act 2)
(CD 2 track 4, 0:25-1:12) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

But Artabanes, plotting yet more diabolically, wants to commit a further regicide, this time on Artaxerxes, free his son, and install Arbaces on the throne of Persia.

Listen -- Thou, like the glorious Sun (Act 2)
(CD 2 track 6, 0:30-1:32) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Naturally the incarcerated Arbaces is anxious only for death; nor will he accept help proffered by Artaxerxes in the form of escape by means of a secret passage till bidden by his sovereign to make off.

Listen -- Why is Death for ever late (Act 3)
(CD 2 track 7, 0:00-1:00) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Left to himself, Artaxerxes is convinced of his friend's innocence, seeing in his present suffering merely the likeness of a cloud obscuring momentarily the rays of the sun.

Listen -- Tho' oft a Cloud, with envious Shade (Act 3)
(CD 2 track 11, 0:46-1:56) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

The mystery, though, is further compounded when Artabanes fails to find Arbaces in the prison where he last consigned him.

Rimenes, with poisoned cup prepared, is bent only on the murder of Artaxerxes, and urges Artabanes to screw his courage to the sticking-point, even if Arbaces as future king seems momentarily to have disappeared and may be in danger.

Listen -- O let the Danger of a Son (Act 3)
(CD 2 track 13, 0:22-1:14) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Of the whole cast Mandane is now the most afflicted, having lost 'Father, Brother, Lover, Friend' -- in other words Xerxes, Artaxerxes as having seemingly condemned to death her former lover Arbaces, and now his sister Semira, who imagines Mandane wanted vengeance for her father at the cost of Arbaces' life. Clouds do indeed lighten briefly when Arbaces, on his way to eternal exile, meets Mandane, and they admit their love.

Listen -- For thee I live, my Dearest (Act 3)
(CD 2 track 21, 0:31-1:31) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

At the coronation festivities Artaxerxes all but drains the lethal draught when rebels led by Rimenes burst into the palace. Arbaces repels them, and is then urged to drink the poison, thus proving he never murdered Xerxes. That is too much even for Artabanes, who confesses all and is condemned to death. The pleading of Arbaces has the sentence commuted, and it remains for the chorus to praise as 'Augustus' both Artaxerxes I and the more local Farmer George III.

Listen -- Arne: Live to us, to Empire live (Act 3)
(CD 2 track 25, 2:06-3:17) © 2009 Hyperion Records Ltd

Roy Goodman and his team give their all to a superb work that remained in the operatic repertoire for more than half a century and has every claim to resume an honoured place again at Covent Garden.

Copyright © 22 November 2009 Robert Anderson,
Cairo, Egypt




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