Metastasio called Artaserse “the most fortunate of all my children.” The first of nearly one hundred eventual settings was by Metastasio’s favourite composer Leonardo Vinci. The English historian Charles Burney (1726 - 1814) wrote that Vinci was the first composer who “since the invention of recitative by Jacopo Peri, in 1600, seems to have occasioned any considerable revolution in the musical drama.” This is quite a statement considering that Burney personally knew Hasse and Handel and was acquainted with the music of Mozart, Vivaldi, Bach and Fux.
Vinci was born in Strongoli and studied composition in Naples under Gaetano Greco in the Conservatorio dei Poveri di Gesù Cristo. Vinci was addicted to gambling and consequently died in extreme poverty in May 1730 amidst rumours of poisoning. He first caught the ear of the public with his Neapolitan comedies Lo cecato fauzo (1719) and Li zite 'ngalera (1722). His first dramma per musica (opera seria) was Publio Cornelio Scipione (1723). But it was with Didone abbandonata (Rome 1725) that the world quite literally became Vinci’s oyster. Since then he premiered several Metastasian libretti which impresarios of Europe competed to premiere. Vinci influenced not only Handel’s musical development but his own innovations were influential right up until the time of Beethoven. His development in orchestral writing, particularly in the strings, the removal of the harpsichord from the basso continuo and simplification of the melodic line and harmonic rhythm, are but four innovations that spring immediately to mind. In my opinion Vinci’s Artaserse – his final dramma per musica - was the most influential opera of the 18th century. And I was therefore looking forward to listening to this first commercial recording of a Vinci opera.
Vinci’s Artaserse, which underwent Metastasio’s personal supervision, saw its debut to great acclaim at the 1730 Rome carnival. Although this setting was taken up immediately in other theatres, it had remained unperformed in this version until this recording was made in Vienna in 2007. According to Burney, Vinci set both carnival operas for the price of one to "gratify his enmity to Porpora who was his rival in that city." With this move Porpora was forced to stage his Mitridate and Siface in Rome's less prestigious Capranica theatre. Much of the rivalry between Vinci and Porpora appears to have been fabricated. In a famous if apochryphal incident the castrato Berenstadt - for whom Handel wrote Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare – sabotaged Porpora’s Siface on Vinci’s orders by blowing snuff on to the stage during its dress rehearsal!
The focus of the drama is the historical sovereign Artakshatra (Artaserse) who is depicted as a man of great personal stature. Artaserse’s father Serse has recently been assassinated by his chief adviser Artabano. Artaserse has also mistakenly had his brother executed and, amidst these horrors, must also suffer the machinations of the malicious Artabano. Though a spectacular success, the run was brought to a premature end during the final performance of Act I on the 21st of February due to the death of Pope Benedict the XIII. However, the following year it was revived after Vinci’s death and Artaserse went on to be sung by all the greatest singers of the 18th century: Farinelli, Caffarelli, Ghizziello and Scalzi to name a few.
Artaserse was premiered by a cast that can reasonably described as stellar. The celebrated Giovanni Carestini sang the hero Arbace. Due to the opposition of Pope Innocent XI to women appearing in theatrical productions in the Papal states the two female roles of Mandane and Semira in Artaserse were performed by castrati. Giacinto Fontana known as Farfallino (“Little Butterfly”) sang Mandane, and Semira by Giuseppe Appiani, one of Porpora’s newest proteges. Appiani, a Milanese castrato, was set to enjoy a very short, but highly successful career. Artaserse and Megabise were sung by castrati Raffaele Signorini and Giovanni Ossi. Very little is known about Signorini but Ossi was renowned for his great voice and dramatic temperament. The tenor Francesco Tolve created Artabano.
From the start of the sinfonia one is no longer in the world of Handel and Bach, but rather we are looking forward into the world of Mozart and the young Beethoven. The sinfonia is in the typical three-part format of fast-slow-fast and is scored for the full orchestra: double brass, timpani, oboes, strings and continuo. The opening movement is a suitably heroic and martial piece with lots of trumpet and timpani fanfares. Giving the melody to the bass over bariolage, and the triple and quadruple stopping in the upper strings were to become features of the music of Mozart and Beethoven. The second movement is a tender Grave that leads into the final brisk Menuet. All three movements are textbook examples of the musical styles of the Classical Movement: the first being Sturm und Drang, the second Empfindsamer and the third a Menuet.
Tolve, the first Artabano, was one of the very few tenors, along with Giovanni Pinacci (1694 - 1750) and Angelo Amorevoli (1716 - 1798), whose fame rivalled that of their castrati and soprano colleagues. Tolve was not a virtuoso singer in the style of Amorevoli, but judging from the music written for him he excelled in the dramatic declamation of the text. The tenor Roman Sadnik has a very robust instrument and is rather well suited to the role of the villain Artabano. Although Sadnik is incapable of singing the most basic coloratura he redeems himself with his dramatic delivery of recitative and his committed acting. Despite Artabano being the driving force behind the action, for this production his role is frightfully reduced to that of a bit player. That so much of this pivotal character’s excellent music was sacrificed in favour of the much weaker roles of Semira and Artaserse is a travesty. Among the sacrificial victims were a superb looking “Sulle sponde” which is cut altogether, and ALL of his other arias lose their da capos. Special mention should be made of the terrific aria “Figlio” which vacillites between a brief hesitant Adagio and an impetuous Allegro to reflect Artabano’s confused state of mind. The Aliberti bass and glissandi in this aria may well have influenced Mozart’s "Si spande” in Il re pastore”.
Counter-tenor Romeo Cornelius delivers a student-level performance as the hero Arbace. Arbace’s music was designed for the gargantuan talents of Carestini. It is quite clear from the opening aria, “Fra cento”, that Cornelius, though physically very attractive, has no business singing this role. The role had to suffer wholesale transposing and simplification to accommodate his narrow range and inadequate technique. Arbace’s music merits discussion nonetheless. “Fra cento” is all Sturm und Drang and though trills and appoggiaturas are ignored on words such as palpito (beating) in the vocal and instrumental parts Vinci’s music underlines the Affekt with breathtaking accuracy. In the great Act I finale Arbace’s accompanied recitative “No che non ha” is cut and the show stopper “Vo solcando” begins directly after Mandane’s aria. This aria di tempesta is transposed down and the triplets are magnificently executed by Cornelius. The orchestra’s playing is also pretty stunning in this aria. Thankfully by the time we reach the da capo the stage director had clearly run out of idiotic ideas as the frenetic staging settles down into something watchable. From Act II comes “Per quel” a beautiful cantabile aria which is very touchingly sung, however, the arioso “Perche tarda” that opens Act III elicits some painful high notes from Cornelius. “L’onda del mar”, as indicated in the score, would have benifitted from a slightly faster tempo. And Cornelius’s singing is at its most unacceptable in this aria. Male sopranos are not a rare commodity these days and my final impression is a question: how does such an inadequate singer with weak diction, a beginner’s technique, and hopeless acting skills gets cast in a professional performance like this?
Artaserse is sung by counter-tenor Andrew Watts. Watts posseses a very beautiful and crystal-clear voice and is also one of the stronger actors in the production. It must be mentioned that Watts, clearly a fine technician, sings this role untransposed and although in places the role lies high for him he sings with great care and musicality. Artaserse’s first aria is the inappropriately staged “Per pieta” which is saved only by Watts’s tender singing. Vinci clearly had a great gift for melody as Artaserse’s final aria in Act I “Deh respirar” shows. The recitative of the first scene of Act II2 is completely cut so Artaserse’s motivation for his next aria “Rendimi”, accompanied by trumpets, is lost.
Marianne Gesswagner (Mandane) is a very striking woman with a very well-schooled and beautiful soprano. One of the biggest losses from the score is Mandane’s “Conservati fedele” which sets the tone for her character. Farfallino had a limited vocal range but was a fine actor: he received an ovation during Vinci’s Didone simply by the way he stood up before he had sung a note in the aria “Son regina”! And this is exactly the kind of temperament that is deftly delivered by Gesswagner’s incisive singing of “Dimmi crudel”, Mandane’s final aria of Act I. “Se d’un amor” from Act II is a beautiful cantabile aria full of Lombard rhythms with a surprise modulation into C minor to hint at Mandane’s false hope. The interplay of the violins is cleverly devised to constantly support the vocal part while never causing any distraction. In short, Gesswagner fulfils and exceeds every vocal and dramatic demand of this role.
Semira is portrayed by the outstanding soprano Elena Copons. ”Bramar di perdere” is a gentle cantabile that captures Semira’s resignation. Later in this aria the music modulates suddenly and with great effect into the minor to underline her regret and sacrifice. Her next aria is “Torna innocente”, which was dismissed by Gretry as inappropriate as it had ”…, if you like, the anger of Pulcinella”; but this is where Gretry had it wrong. Semira is not angry with Arbace, in fact she is trying to be diplomatic by appearing intolerant of the crime yet at the same time showing him her support. The melody is gorgeous and is one of the best in the opera. This and the rest of Semira’s music was sung with seductive ease and accuracy by creamy-voiced Copons.
The interesting and virtuosic role of the boorish general Megabise loses all of his arias. But judging from Gottfried Falkenstein’s hideous singing in the recitatives it is perhaps a small mercy that we’ve been spared this ordeal.
Conductor Huw Rhys James’s interpretation is vivid, dramatic, stylish and secure. His musical direction is truly on a level that is comparable to that of the great innovators on the Baroque scene today. Though Rhys James is the star of this production in my opinion he has to perform these works with fewer cuts. In a few cases he presumably ignores Vinci’s tempo indications, and the results are consequently less than successful, e.g. Semira’s “Se del fiume” which lacks urgency and desperation due to Rhys James’s moderate tempo.
Musica Poetica Wien play throughout with incredible energy and precision. Their realisation of the recitatives, however, is unfortunately a little dull and uncreative and not responsive to Metastasio’s text. Although there is some ornamention, as a rule many arias lose their ritornelli, cadenzas and da capos. Anachronistically in many places written ornamentation is ignored in both vocal and instrumental parts. Ornamentation is an intrinsic feature of this music, not an extra: one need look no further than the clothes, furniture, art and architecture of the day to see this in visual form. In the creation of this edition there were many cuts: e.g. Act I Scene I loses around eight pages of recitative with the most damaging cuts made to the pivotal role of Artabano.
The Semperdepot–Ausstellungsraum is quite a huge asymmetrical room, although it is impossible to fully capture this on a video screen. Unfortunately Nicola Raab’s staging is ridiculous. The first of many examples of her arrogance at ignoring the text and/or incompetence at interpreting it can be seen when Artabano walks across the courtyard during the sinfonia with a drawn sword to kill Serse. He is followed by Arbace and Mandane who are sneaking out of Mandane’s rooms. In this romantically charged atmosphere Serse is heard to scream as he is murdered. Neither Arbace nor Mandane react to this. Obviously Raab knows Artaserse better than Metastasio whose intentions AND stage directions continue to be ignored in this vein.
Linda Redlin’s costumes look like rejects from the 1970’s Star Wars trilogy. The final touch of everyone in the cast wearing Doc Marten’s finally degrades one of the most opulent and sophisticated courts of the ancient world to Obi-Wan Kenobi in practical shoes.
The DVD cover is very well designed and we should stress that this recording is not commercially available to buy, but is actually an in-house recording intended purely as an archival and promotional product, as well as for educational purposes.
As the performance progressed it became quite clear that once again we are treated to a performance which has been altered in “expert” hands to suit modern tastes. And in this light it is a bit of a missed opportunity.
Now with Handel fully revived it is clear that of Vinci there is much to be discovered and enjoyed. Despite my reservations, this recording has much to recommend it - perhaps at some point it will be comercially released? (For those interested in discovering more Vinci there are two difficult to get hold of pirate recordings of his operas La Rosmira and Catone in Utica available.)