- Dramma per musica in 3 acts
- Composer: Leonardo Vinci
- Libretto: Pietro Metastasio
- First performed: Teatro delle Dame, Rome, 4 February 1730
Over the Easter weekend, most classical music lovers listened to Bach and Parsifal. I had more fun: I watched a tenor and five (5!) countertenors, two of them in drag, in an opera seria masterpiece.
Last week, I would have confidently told you that Vinci’s Catone in Utica (1728) was my favourite opera composed before Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide (1774). I’ve listened to it ever since reviewing it last month. Giulio Cesare alone has two insane bravura arias, and the sublimely beautiful “Quell’amor che poco accende”.
Vinci’s final opera, Artaserse, is even better. This dramatic tale of murder, ambition, and love (familial, fraternal, romantic) in 5th century BC Persia was Metastasio’s most popular libretto, set 90 times, including by Hasse, Gluck, and J.C. Bach. Vinci got there first – and we can only wonder what he would have gone on to create if a jealous aristocrat hadn’t poisoned his hot chocolate months later.
Vinci was one of opera’s great melodists, with a strong sense of drama and character. With Artaserse, Frédéric Delaméa (“The Most Celebrated Italian Opera”, Decca 2012) believes, Vinci “raised to fresh heights a style of composition that was inventive, elegant, full of charm and vivacity, capable of pointing up emotions and dramatic situations without weighing them down with an overly dense harmonic and instrumental structure”.
For a start, it has possibly the best aria ever composed. Here is the fantastic Franco Fagioli (Catone’s Cesare) singing “Vo solcando un mar crudele”:
(That aria has been seen a staggering 802,500 times on YouTube.)
Max Emanuel Cencic, countertenor and director, is the driving force behind the resurrection of the two Vinci operas. They are tours de force: demonstrations of the prowess of the modern countertenor.
Both feature all-male casts; they were composed for Rome, where women were banned from the stage. Heroes and skirt roles alike were played by castrati, 18th century opera superstars who could soar into the stratosphere like a soprano, with all the force of a broken male voice. Castrati disappeared in the early 19th century; when 20th century musicians wanted to remount opera seria, they often handed these roles to mezzo-sopranos. (25 years ago, when they wanted to recreate the voice of the great Farinelli, they blended a soprano and a countertenor.)
Now, the age of the countertenor is truly upon us. Artaserse assembles the cream of countertenors: Jaroussky in the title role of the young shah of Persia; Fagioli as the wrongly accused Arbace; Cencic and Valer Barna-Sabadus in the skirt roles of their sisters Mandane and Semira; and Yuriy Mynenko as the scheming general Megabyzus. The result is some of the most thrillingly virtuosic singing you’re likely to hear. Forget the reedy countertenor voices of yesteryear; this is singing with balls (so to speak). The sole tenor, Daniel Behle (CD) / Juan Sancho (DVD), plays the villain, Arbace’s father Artabano.
A 2011 Decca CD was followed by a stage production in Nancy, France, in 2012. Forum Opéra called it the most significant event for pre-classical music since Lully’s Atys in 1987. (One important difference: Artaserse is riveting, while the dramatic highpoint of Lully’s opera is the hero falling asleep.)
Silviu Purcărete’s concept is 18th century meets Japanese Noh: chalk-white faces, sweeping black eyebrows, accentuated eyes and mouths, and Louis XIV full-bottomed wigs and frock-coats. All this within a deconstructed theatre: no curtain; the performers are made up and don costumes onstage; and (certainly in the DVD) we see technicians moving props and sets. It’s a fantastic production, and receives a volcanic standing ovation.
I’ve listened to Artaserse half-a-dozen times since Friday night; it has that effect. At least two people have listened to it non-stop for weeks; one says it’s his favourite opera after The Marriage of Figaro, while another was inspired to create a graphic novel. (Check it out; it’s a wonderful tribute to the opera, and a real labour of love.)
Plot and historical background
The opera is set in 465 BC, in the court of Xerxes I, who is assassinated offstage at the start. The criminal is Artabano [Artabanus], prefect of the royal guard, who wants to place his son Arbace on the Persian throne. Artabano and his henchman Megabize [Megabyzus], general of the royal army, convince Xerxes’s son Artaserse [Artaxerxes I] that his brother Dario [Darius] killed his father. As soon as the guards have executed him, suspicion falls on Arbace, found climbing over the wall, and carrying the bloody sword his father gave him. The unfortunate youngster – like all good honourable, long-suffering 18th-century heroes – keeps silent to protect his father. To play for time, Artabano denounces his son, and, later, condemns him to death. This is Metastasian opera seria, so (Catone aside) we can expect a happy ending.
This is loosely based on fact; the Persian histories, though, are contradictory, and, like so much of Classical literature, lost; we have to rely on later summaries.
“Xerxes, king of Persia, once the terror of the nations around him, became, after his unsuccessful conduct of the war against Greece [Second Persian Wars, 480–79 BC, with Greek victories at Salamis and Plataea], an object of contempt even to his own subjects,” Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus tells us. Artabanus, his chief officer, plotted with the eunuch Aspamitres (according to Photius’ summary of Ctesias’ Persica) or Mithridates (according to Diodorus Siculus) to kill their master. Pompeius Trogus states that Artabanus, “conceiving hopes of usurping the throne, as the king’s authority was every day declining, entered one evening into the palace (which from his intimacy with Xerxes was always open to him), accompanied by his seven stout sons, and, having put the king to death, proceeded to remove by stratagem such of the king’s sons as opposed his wishes.”
Artabanus pretended that Darius slew his father, instigating Artaxerxes, only a boy, “to revenge parricide by fratricide” (Pompeius Trogus). According to Diodorus Siculus, Artabanus told Artaxerxes “that his brother Darius had murdered his father and was shifting the kingship to himself. He counselled him, therefore, before Darius should seize the throne, to see to it that he should not become a slave through sheer indifference but that he should ascend the throne after punishing the murderer of his father.” Darius, denying the accusation, was put to death in Artaxerxes’s palace, possibly with the help of his bodyguard.
Artabanus then plotted to remove Artaxerxes. According to Diodorus Siculus, “Artabanus saw how his plan was prospering, and called his own sons to his side. Crying out that now was his time to win the kingship, he struck Artaxerxes with his sword. Artaxerxes, being wounded merely and not seriously hurt by the blow, held off Artabanus and dealing him a fatal blow killed him. Thus Artaxerxes, after being saved in this unexpected fashion and having taken vengeance upon the slayer of his father, took over the kingship of the Persians.”
According to Pompeius Trogus, however, the prince got Artabanus to disarm himself by a ruse, then ran him through with his sword. “Thus this excellent youth at once took revenge for his father’s murder, and saved himself from the machinations of Artabanus.”
Megabyzus’s involvement in the plot comes from Ctesias. Megabyzus was in fact Xerxes’s son-in-law, married to Amytis (corresponding to Mandane), whom he thought unfaithful. The two men conspired to depose Artaxerxes, each swearing to remain loyal to the other. “Nevertheless, Megabyzus revealed the plot, the guilty conduct of Artapanus came to light, and he met the death which he had intended for Artaxerxes.” Aspamitres was exposed in the trough (trapped between two boats, covered with milk and honey, and eaten alive).
Into this bloody tale, Metastasio, of course, inserts a romantic element. Arbace is in love with Mandane; Xerxes banished the young man from the palace, insulting Artabano’s family. Artaserse loves Artabano’s daughter Semira, whom her father has promised to Megabize.
Metastasio’s libretto is beautifully constructed. The first act is tight and rapid; the arias at once advance the action and reveal character. Within the first three arias:
- Metastasio establishes Arbace and Mandane’s relationship, and Arbace’s motive for murdering Serse
- Artabano murders Serse, to Arbace’s horror; the horrified youth escapes over the wall with the incriminating sword. Artabano both loves and is ambitious for his son, contrasted with Arbace’s fundamental nobility.
- Artabano persuades Artaserse that his brother is a parricide, and to kill him before Dario can strike; besides, his father’s ghost demands vengeance. Artaserse trusts (or is gullible).
We see, too, the advantage of the oft-derided exit aria. The first two acts each bring the characters onstage for a key event; one by one, they react to the situation and walk offstage, leaving the central figure of the scene alone. In Act I, Arbace is arrested; his former best friend (who suspects him), his father (who committed the crime), his sister (regretfully), and his girlfriend abandon him. In Act II, Artabano reluctantly condemns Arbace to death; Arbace accepts the sentence if it will save Persia, the others are appalled, while the murderer wonders how to save the situation and his son.
Patrick J. Smith (A Historical Study of the Opera Libretto, 1970) believes “the chief characters in [Metastasio’s] operas were not allowed to become complex, for complexity would lessen their stature as embodiments of one affect or emotion”. The characters here, however, are not one-dimensional stock figures; they live, both in the text and through Vinci’s music.
The rather wet Artaserse is a young man well out of his depth: manipulated by Artabano and Megabise into fratricide; indecisive (unwilling to judge his friend); when he does act to save Arbace, it’s in secrecy, ushering him out a secret passage. His music is accordingly sweet (“Per pietà, bell’idol mio” or “Rendimi il caro amico”), while his aria “Deh respirar lasciatemi” expresses both his confusion and sense of guilt (“e delinquente e re”).
In contrast, his stronger-willed sister Mandane is something of a virago, wielding two rage arias: “Dimmi che un empio tu sei” and the magnificent “Va’ tra le selve ircane”, while pity and love war against honour in “Se d’un amor tiranno”. She has all the pride of a daughter of the Achmaenids, and a temper to match; like Corneille’s Chimène, her duty commands her to hate the man she believed killed her father, but she cannot. (“Odiarlo, oh dio, vorrei ma odiarlo, oh dio, non so.”) Both roles were sung by castrati, but neither’s arias could be mistaken for the other’s.
Artabano, too, is complex, and, for all his villainy, sympathetic. His plans to place his son on the throne lead to his condemning him. When he believes Arbace has been murdered by Artaserse, he grieves in the moving “Figlio se più non vivi”, seething rage against the king breaking out in faster passages.
The stand-out aria is, of course, the phenomenal “Vo solcando un mar crudele”; Grétry considered the storm-as-simile aria an ideal partnership between words and music. “This was the first time that a picture had been created in music; it is the first ray of light pointing to truth. The Roman audience went mad with delight when it heard for the first time this sublime combination of music with eloquent words.”
Arbace’s “L’onda dal mar divisa”, his farewell to Artaserse, is delightful. The Nancy production suggests a gay relationship; Jaroussky and Fagioli even rest their heads together – an image that tops the DVD cover. It’s not an extraneous reading; while both Artaserse and Arbace are paired with women, they are very close – and, as Guardian critic Tim Ashley suggests, “Artaserse’s feelings for Arbace run deeper than his affection for his own fiancée, Semira”. Look, for instance, at these lyrics:
Rendimi il caro amico,
parte dell'alma mia,
fa' ch'innocente sia
come l'amai finor.
Compagni dalla cuna
tu ci vedesti e sai
che in ogni mia fortuna
seco finor provai
ogni piacer diviso,
diviso ogni dolor.
Give me back my dear friend,
part of my own soul,
render him again innocent,
as I have always loved him.
You have seen how we were
companions from infancy,
you know how
at every stage of my life
we have shared every pleasure,
shared every sorrow.
Later, Arbace tells his father: “If you kill Artaserse, I can live no longer.” Forget the usual Don Carlos/Posa pairing; the tragedy is even stronger if Artaserse feels betrayed not by his friend but by his lover, “il mio diletto Arbace” (“my beloved”).
The Arbace / Mandane duet “Tu vuoi ch’io viva o cara” is beautiful – and, in the Nancy production, magical. We can sense what the 18th century opera seria was like, with these resplendent figures in helmets and extravagant feathered costumes singing in front of painted backdrops.
Arias like “Sogna il guerrier le schierre”, Megabise’s martial declaration of ‘love’ (=rape), like some monstrous bird of prey in the stage production; Artabano’s “Amalo e se al tuo sugardo”, with its imperious high note “Amalo” commanding his daughter to marry Megabise; or Semira’s “Non è ver che sia contento”, with its bright, Handelian colours would make a lesser opera. The closing chorus “Giusto re, la Persia adora” is wonderful, too.
The whole thing’s wonderful: more than three hours of exhilarating singing, opera at its finest. The more I listen, the more convinced I am that the golden age of Italian opera runs from the early 18th century to Rossini – and Vinci was a star that shone brilliantly, and went out far too soon.