Baroque is hyperbole, celebrating exuberance. Artaxerxes, set in ancient Persia, gave Arne an opportunity to create an “oriental” fantasy that would shock and awe. This production, by the Royal Opera House at the Linbury Studio Theatre certainly was spectacular in the true, over-the-top baroque manner, enhanced by modern technology.
Artaxerxes starts in silence. The Orchestra of the Classical Opera Company sits on stage in a brightly lit white pit. They’re wearing white too, which dazzles in the darkly shrouded stage. Gradually from the shadows emerges a truly magnificent golden throne, not like any story-book European king’s throne but an intricate golden web, 5 meters high. It references the Pharaohs —Tutankhamen meets the Peacock Throne of Persia..
The costumes (by Johan Engels) are amazing. They look vaguely 18th century yet are made of Japanese brocade and silk, lime green, neon pink, electric blue, colours that rarely exist in nature, with samurai-like shoulderpads and helmets. European, but with a distinctly alien flamboyance. This is the true magpie spirit of the baroque, an age when Europe discovered that worlds existed beyond anything they’d imagined. It didn’t matter if the influences were Japan or Persia, as long as they were exotic.
The servants who also act as guards, are mysterious, some wearing samurai helmets, but often simply swathed in black, like ninjas. This could be a reference to bunraku, the Japanese theatre tradition where puppets “act”, manipulated by black-clad puppeteers, meant to be semi-invisible. It could be a comment on how formal and stylized life in Court circles might have been. When the singers collapse emotionally, they fall down, held up by the “ninjas” who then become symbols of dark, inexpressible feelings.
The costumes may be hyper-real and the set minimalist, but that reflects the plot. It’s so convoluted it’s not easy to follow even if you’ve read up on it. Artaxerxes’s father Xerxes is assassinated by Artabanes, father of Arbaces, Artaxerxes’s best friend. Both young men are in love with each others sisters. Father frames son for the murder and condemns him to death. But the son is so loyal to the new king, that he kills the rebel General. In remorse, Artabanes confesses and Artaxerxes exiles his regicide future farher in law, restoring the son to honour and marrying the daughter.
Musically, Artaxerxes is surprisingly simple, with a small chamber orchestra, instruments doubled for volume. The continuos are harpsichord and cello. Some of the arias are familiar even though the opera itself is rarely heard. There are good moments for vocal pyrotechnics. Words are held for 10 or 12 measures amply decorated. Nonetheless, it’s not specially inventive as music.Artaxerxes will be much better known thanks to this production, but might not have quite the same effect in concert performance.
Very good singing all round. Christopher Ainslie’s Artaxerxes wasn’t so extreme as some countertenors can be, so he didn’t shake the balance of the ensemble but convinced as an intuitive young man who doesn’t do ruthless. Caitlin Hulcup’s Arbaces was so convincing that you had to remind yourself she was a mezzo. Elizabeth Watts’s Mandane, and Andrew Staples’s Artabanes were solid. Steven Ebel’s Rimenes was striking, his stage presence mature beyond his actual age.
Rebecca Bottone’s Semira was outstanding. Tiny as she is, she sings and acts with such intensity that it seems to shake her frame. It’s Semira who challenges everyone, and it is she who doesn’t accept that Arbaces is a killer. Left to his own devices the poor fellow is a bit of a wimp, despite being sweet. Bottone’s passionate portrayal was so strong that she was worth watching even when she wasn’t singing.
This was a new performing edition by Ian Page, who conducted and wrote additional music for the recitatives. Duncan Druce write the delightful finale, where all the cast sing before the golden throne. The original recitatives and finale were lost in a fire that burned down a theatre not far from Covent Garden in 1808, so it’s good that it should be restored and heard again at the Royal Opera House, not far from where Arne lived 250 years ago.