Saturday, 31 October 2009

Ultimate Baroque Arne Artaxerxes Linbury

This Royal Opera House production of Thomas Arne's 1762 masterpiece Artaxerxes is Ultimate Baroque, its magnificence designed to shock and awe. Baroque is hyperbole. It's meant to defy reality: artifice as "extreme art". In a sense, the baroque is stunningly modern because it embraces the idea that things don't have to be literal or even logical to stir the soul.

First surprise: 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 Linbury Studio at the Royal Opera House. Gradually your eyes adjust, and from the shadows emerges a truly magnificent golden throne, not like any story-book European king's throne but an intricate golden web, 5 metres high. It references the golden thrones in Egyptian pyramids -Tutankhamen meets the Peacock Throne of ancient Persia. It even looks like a chrysalis, or elaborate butterfly wings. Many of the singer's costumes refer to insects, too, beetles of all kinds from Artabane's metallic thorax to the wide jackets the other singers wear which open out like wings over their trousers.

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. At once hyper-European, but with a distinctly alien, exotic 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 exuberant and hyper-real.

The servants 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 back, supported by the "ninjas" who 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 asassinated by Artabanes, father of Arbaces, Artaxerxes's best friend. Both young men are in love with each other's sisters. Father frames son for the murder but son is so pure that Dad confesses the truth. Now Artaxerxes is king he can banish his regicide future father-in-law and all's well. Musically, it's surprisingly spare too, almost chamber-like, instruments simply doubled for volume.

Some of the arias are familiar even though the opera is pretty much unknown. Perhaps it was a kind of "numbers opera" to showcase popular stars. Hence bravura moments where a single word can be held over 12 or more measures, so the audience can wonder at the singer's superhuman powers, even if the music isn't all that inventive.

Very good singing all round. Christopher Ainslie's Artaxerxes wasn't so extreme as some countertenors can be, so he didn't shake the balanceof 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.

But 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. Why she was the only person in the cast dressed like one of the puppets hanging in Marsala Zone? I don't know. Semira is a powerful general's daughter not a peasant, and she's pretty hot - Rimenes fancies her and she's going to be queen when she marries Artaxerxes.

This was a new performing edition by Ian Page, who conducted and wrote additional music for the recitatives. Duncan Druce write the wonderful finale, where all the cast sing before the golden throne. The original recitatives and finale were destroyed in a fire in 1808.

Having seen this, I'm now keen to hear the Classical Opera Company and Ian Page in their forthcoming series of Handel Operas at Kings Place in December. Read HERE about it. The Handel opera won't be staged, so much of the amazing impact of this Artaxerxes will be lost. On the other Handel works fine in concert performance.

To read more about Arne and Artaxerxes, read Tim Ashley's article, which is the best and most informative. You can hear sound samples of the opera on the Hyperion site They've got the only full recording. I've written a lot about baroque art and its non-western influences so please follow the links at right on "baroque" and "Macau" or click HERE, HERE and HERE. These are just first thoughts, a more formal piece is here in Opera Today with production picture.

1 comment:

Alexandra Coghlan said...

I just wanted to say what a fabulous review of Artaxerxes this is. Your discussion of the concept of baroque is such an intelligent way into understanding the production (which i saw on friday) and the hook which makes everything fall into place.
Much writerly kudos!