Artaxerxes - Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre, 9 November 2009
Martin Duncan's new production of Arne's Artaxerxes is one of the most exquisitely-costumed operas I have ever seen. It's almost worth the price of admission simply to gaze on Johan Engels' vast panniered skirts, covered in acres of richly-embroidered vintage kimono fabric and split to reveal equally sumptuous velvet zouave pants in all the colours of a Persian miniature. One of the costumes even turns into a throne, Transformers-style (above), and you can't get much cooler than that.
But enough of the big-ass frocks. Does the music work? It certainly doesn't have Handel's melodic fluency or Gluck's formal inventiveness or Mozart's emotional resonance. But Arne's opera was one of the most popular in the English repertoire from its 1762 debut until the 1830's, so it must have something going for it. The tunes are pleasant if not memorable, the improbable story is neatly paced, and if neither plot nor harmonically tame score whip up much dramatic tension, it is always imaginatively orchestrated.
So Artaxerxes may not be the greatest opera ever written, bu everything about this production shows it off to its best advantage.
The Linbury has been transformed. Several rows of stalls seats are taken out to extend the blue-washed stage. The pit is sunk into the middle like a Roman bath with the orchestra arrayed in full view, clad in puffy white poet blouses. Fairy lights dangle from the ceiling and burning incense dispenses a choking fug over the audience as they enter (no wonder half the cast have been suffering from respiratory woes).
Movement shares the baroque formality of the score, with every gesture minutely choregraphed as the cast slip from one stylised pose to another (not that the corridor-width costumes leave much scope for spontaneous action anyway). It may sound daft, but the cast's finesse and commitment is such that it's actually rather charming.
The story is rather silly, and again it's some credit to the cast that they spin it out so well. Artabanes kills Persian King Xerxes as part of a plan to put his own son Arbaces on the throne, but instead Arbaces is wrongly accused and imprisoned. Luckily for Arbaces he is mates with Xerxes' son, the new king Artaxerxes, who helps him escape. Arbaces seals the deal by saving Artaxerxes from yet another backstabber, Rimenes, and Artabanes confesses to the murder. As a by-the-way which actually takes up more of the opera than the main plot does, Arbaces is in love with Xerxes' daughter Mandane, and his sister Semira is in love with Artaxerxes.
Chris Moyles lookalike Andrew Staples sang Artabanes with exemplary clarity, but I couldn't always follow often hazy diction elsewhere. I strongly suspect it didn't matter that much though. The voluptuously-voiced Elizabeth Watts got the most and the best of the music in the part of the feisty Mandane. Caitlin Hulcup captured the tragedy of Arbaces' dilemma, and was so convincing that for the first few minutes I thought she must be a particularly sweet-voiced countertenor. The real countertenor was Christopher Ainslie, who did well as Artaxerxes in a part written a little lower than he found comfortable. Rebecca Bottone sang with charm and clarity as Semira, and only Steven Ebel as Rimenes, suffering from a cold, struggled a little.
Ian Page of the Classical Opera Company not only conducted dexterously but wrote seamlessly-fitting music for the recitatives to replace the originals, lost in a Covent Garden fire some 200 years ago. Did they have incense burners then, too?
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