Artaserse: Leonardo Vinci (1730)

Vinci: Artaserse

★★★★★

(with I Barocchisti [CD] and Concerto Köln [DVD], directed by Diego Fasolis, 2012)

Before we start, I should emphasise: the composer is not the artist Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), but a completely different person, the Neapolitan Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730). I must also add a disclaimer. As you may remember, I know nothing about the technicalities of music. In this field I am, more than ever, merely an enthusiastic amateur. That’s especially the case in Baroque music, which must be one of the most technically complex and elaborate areas of classical music. However, as I’ve said before, I’m fascinated by the phenomenon of the castrati and, as such, this particular opera (and performance) was one I couldn’t resist.

The last few weeks have been very hard, because I will soon be moving jobs and leaving behind a team of people I love deeply, but going on to some truly exciting things. It’s a terrifying time, but a thrilling one too. And, as I’ve tackled interview preparation, setbacks and crises of self-belief, my one constant has been Artaserse. With one last warning for excessive enthusiasm… let’s plunge into a romp through a superb opera.

I ended up with this 2012 recording, directed by Diego Fasolis, because I was on a mission to buy every album by Philippe Jaroussky that I could find. I came across Jaroussky about a year ago, when I bought his Carestini album and fell in love with his crystalline countertenor. Shortly afterwards I bought his album Farinelli: Porpora Arias, mainly because it had Alto Giove on it and that’s an aria that always makes me go weak at the knees. (Actually, I think Jaroussky’s live rendition of it is far more successful than the CD recording, where he seems to have a bit of a wobble on the opening messa di voce, but that might just be me.) Then I bought his Virtuoso Cantatas and then, thanks to Tom Holland’s Twitter feed, I discovered his meltingly beautiful Cum Dederit from Vivaldi’s Nisi Dominus, which he absolutely nails – it’s the kind of track you listen to dreamily, late at night, in a candlelit room with a glass of Tokaji.

Vinci: Artaserse

Arbace (Franco Fagioli) gears up for his big moment in Vo solcando

And then I discovered Vinci’s 1730 opera Artaserse, a rarely-performed work which was recorded in 2012 both as a theatrical performance and as a CD. More to the point, this is an opera with a difference. It was first performed in Rome, where women were forbidden to sing on stage and where young men sang the female roles. Five of the six main roles in this opera were written for castrato singers and there are some crazy arias. This particular production takes on the challenge of recreating the feel of the original performance, with an all-male cast, and so five of the world’s leading countertenors have been assembled to tackle this wonderful music. The result is nothing short of spectacular.

I have the DVD and the CD and I’ve been listening to the CD on repeat for practically the last fortnight, so I want to talk about the music first, and then the performance. There are two arias in particular I want to focus on. Incidentally, I have to apologise publicly to Alan, Jess and Heloise, all of whom have been in the firing line over the past fortnight and have been subjected to me bouncing up to them (in person or by email) and making them listen to fragments of the opera, while exclaiming, ‘Isn’t this incredible?!!!’ To their credit, none of them told me to go away, no matter how tempting that must have been.

It’s important to note that I’m not a big fan of opera per se*, but Artaserse won my heart from the opening chords, with an allegro sinfonia that is so gloriously grand and perky, I want it for my ringtone (or my alarm clock). I find it impossible to listen to it without a stupidly big grin on my face. It was the perfect opera for me: every aria sparkles, everyone gets their moment in the sun with some ridiculously elaborate ornamentation, the music is compulsively whistleable, and there’s never a dull moment. There’s also a beautiful balance between elegant introspection and crazy extroversion.

Vinci: Artaserse

Artabano (Juan Sancho) © Gérard Delacour

Jaroussky plays Artaserse (who was played by Raffaele Signorini in the original 1730 production). As the biggest celebrity in the cast (and arguably the prettiest), he gets to be the poster-boy for the production. Franco Fagioli plays the hero Arbace (a part created for the great castrato Carestini). Max Cencic takes the role of Mandane (created for Giacinto Fontana) and, as I understand it, Cencic was one of the driving forces behind the entire revival project, for which he should be congratulated. Valer Sabadus makes a startlingly elegant Semira (first played by Giuseppe Appiani); Yuriy Mynenko is Megabise (played originally by Giovanni Ossi); and Artabano, the sole tenor role, is played on the CD by Daniel Behle and on the DVD by Juan Sancho.

To give you a brief overview of a very labyrinthine plot: the scheming Artabano, whom I shall call the Grand Vizier whether he technically is one or not, plots to take control of the Persian empire by placing his own son Arbace on the throne. The opera opens with Artabano’s murder of the king, Serse. Sending the unwilling Arbace off to hide the murder weapon, Artabano frames Serse’s eldest son, Dario, as the murderer. The inexperienced prince Artaserse, Dario’s younger brother, finds himself obliged to condemn his brother to death. However, no sooner has Dario been executed than chaos erupts.

Arbace is caught in the palace gardens with a bloody sword and is hauled before the prince. Despite protesting his innocence, Arbace is unable to explain himself: his filial piety prevents him from implicating his father. Of course, this isn’t remotely what Artabano had planned, but he has to play along. Privately, he and his ally, the general Megabise, try to think of a way to get Arbace out of prison. Publicly, Artabano disowns Arbace and protests his own loyalty to Artaserse. As for the poor prince, he has his brother’s blood on his hands, and feels that he’s just been betrayed by his closest friend. Not only that, Arbace is also his potential brother-in-law: Arbace is in love with Artaserse’s fiery sister Mandane, while Artaserse himself (very neatly) is in love with Arbace’s sister Semira.

Vinci: Artaserse

Megabise (Yuriy Mynenko) prepares to pounce on Semira (Valer Sabadus)

With the ambitious Megabise and Artabano skulking at his heels, and deprived of the one man he trusts, Artaserse decides to do what he can to save his friend, and springs Arbace from prison. But his generosity backfires when Artabano thinks that Arbace’s sudden disappearance just means that Artaserse has had him executed – and he is determined to get his revenge. The moral of the story? Your Grand Vizier is not your friend.

As I said, two arias stood out for me and, to my surprise, neither of those was performed by Jaroussky (although his beautiful rendition of Per pietà, bell’ idol mio came in a very close third place). In second place was the gorgeous duet Tu vuoi ch’io viva o cara from the third act of the opera, sung by Arbace and Mandane. It’s a very beautiful piece of music and also extremely moving. Mandane has spent much of the opera believing that Arbace murdered her father, despite his protestations of innocence. When he vanishes from prison, she assumes he’s dead and her heart begins to soften. And then, when he suddenly turns up in her apartments, she’s equally shocked and relieved – though still not quite able to forgive him. The most beautiful duet follows, in which his voice audibly woos and seduces hers. At first he tries to win her over and she resists, brushing him off –

ARBACE: Sentimi. (Listen to me.)
MANDANE: No!
ARBACE: Tu sei… (You are…)
MANDANE: Parti dagli occhi miei; Lasciami per pietà!
(Get out of my sight; Leave me, for pity’s sake!)

But Arbace persists, gently, wooing her, refusing to be put off, and in the Fagioli / Cencic version you can hear the moment when his gentle insistence – ‘Cara!’ (‘Darling!’) – melts her. Her lines become more fragmented, her ‘No!’ becomes less fierce and more yearning (for once, this is a woman saying ‘no’ but really, really meaning ‘yes’), and then in the following lines their voices twine together in the most incredible way, the notes winding in and out of one another… it’s such a splendid performance. And Fagioli’s and Cencic’s voices work so well together – Fagioli’s voice is richer across a wider range, so he takes the lower notes, and Cencic’s voice is warm and full but a little gentler, and easily soars up to the more feminine part of the duet. It’s just stunning.

Vinci: Artaserse

Mandane (Max Cencic) in one of her less forgiving moments © Gérard Delacour

So, if that was in second place, the gold medal was taken by Fagioli’s solo performance of the aria Vo solcando un mar crudele, which concludes the first act. Arbace is thrown into emotional turmoil by the fact that he can’t save himself without betraying his father, and this turns into a showpiece aria of epic proportions. If you don’t know what the song’s about, it actually all sounds rather jolly – and the way it’s performed in the DVD rather backs that up – but the more I listen to it, the more I realise what a challenge it is. I hadn’t come across Fagioli before and yet I’d barely heard him sing a few lines before I was riveted. His voice has such richness and such range – velvety and rounded and powerful whether it’s down at the tenor end of the spectrum, or soaring effortlessly up into the dazzlingly high reaches of the soprano range. How does he do it?

Next to him, the rest of the cast (despite their brilliance) sound a little hollow on the high notes, or at least a bit thin. But not only is Fagioli’s range incredible. His vocal acrobatics are unbelievable. Sure, he has to take a breath now and then, in a phrase which Farinelli et al would probably have been able to dash off in one go, but Fagioli casually throws in the kind of rippling coloratura that makes you listen with your mouth hanging open. There’s one moment when he descends into a tenor note and then, mere seconds later, his voice shoots up to a note so high that in the Farinelli film they could only get it by splicing a female soprano’s voice into the mix. (If anyone’s listening, can’t we get another film or TV series about Farinelli with Fagioli playing him? It would be magical to see someone in the role who can tackle that kind of music without digital doctoring.)

Well. You get the point. Fagioli has completely bowled me over. I’ve already pre-ordered his album of Porpora arias, which is coming out in the autumn (and I’ve just booked tickets to see him at the Wigmore Hall on 21 September!). I still love Jaroussky, of course, but his gorgeously ethereal, pure voice seems to work best with slightly different music. Take the Cum Dederit I mentioned earlier, for example, or Lascia ch’io pianga, both of which suit his crystalline tones very well, but I can’t imagine him playing Arbace with as much panache and drama as Fagioli.

Vinci: Artaserse

Not Artaserse’s finest fashion moment: the prince (Philippe Jaroussky) laments his situation, accompanied by Semira (Valer Sabadus), Mandane (Max Cencic) and Artabano (Juan Sancho)

And so, the DVD. I have to kick off with a further comment. With music of this sort, I am hugely biased by my fondness for the performances in Farinelli. If I were going to perform one of the great castrato arias, I would jolly well want to make my entrance on a chariot descending from the heavens, dressed in gold, crimson and fabulous plumes, thank you very much. If you’re going to do Baroque, in my opinion, you should darn well do it properly: so I was a bit alarmed when the first clips I saw on YouTube (of L’onda dal mar divisa) suggested that everything was a bit monochrome. Hah! I needn’t have worried. When I watched the whole thing, there were flowing lace cuffs, Rococo gowns, crazy feather collars and really rather scary jackets with massively padded shoulders.

Fagioli, God bless him, performed Vo solcando wearing a periwig of architectural proportions, an 18th-century suit and heavy make-up. He looked very much like I imagine a castrato would have looked – and it was fantastic. You must watch the clip on YouTube (linked above), because in the stage performance his voice goes even higher than on the CD. It’s just mental. For his duet with Cencic (again, see above), poor Fagioli gets into something which looks distractingly like a costume from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, while Cencic swaps his Rococo frock for a feathered headdress with wings and a big frothy skirt. The fact they can both pull out the heart-melting beauty of the music despite looking rather silly just confirms how brilliant they are. You should maybe listen to the music before watching it, because then you’ll be able to lose yourself in its splendour before being distracted by the staging.

There is nothing wrong with the staging, but it is self-consciously artificial. During the overture, you watch the singers wander on, chat to one another and stroll down to the front of the stage to watch the orchestra, before being taken off to the sides of the stage where we watch their dressers put the finishing touches to their wigs and costumes. It’s cleverly done, and it reminded me a bit of the all-male version of Twelfth Night, where you watched the actors transforming into their parts – I suppose it’s a good way to acknowledge the artificiality of the performance you’re putting before the audience. But a part of me yearned for something grander and more over-the-top (though Vo solcando went a long way towards mollifying me, with Fagioli’s cascading wig and structured frock coat, and the showers of gold at the end).

Vinci: Artaserse

At the climax of Vo solcando, Arbace (Franco Fagioli) collapses in a starburst of golden confetti

Nevertheless, this performance is just dazzling. For it to have won my heart – when I’m not even all that keen on opera** – is a very big recommendation. As an insight into historical performances, it’s tantalising. Fagioli’s performance is especially captivating and, though we will never know what Farinelli and his ilk really sounded like, it’s tempting to believe that he gets someway towards the staggering virtuosity of their voices (those glittering, tumbling cascades of notes!). Above all, we’re fantastically lucky to have a record of six such fine singers coming together for such an unprecedented project.

Had I known this was happening in 2012, I’ve have almost chewed my own arm off to get there (so it’s probably fortunate that I didn’t)***. As it is, I’m going to be on the lookout for any concerts by these very talented young men, and I hope that the critical success of this performance might convince other directors to give us more glimpses of the grandeur of the 18th-century stage.

Buy the CD

Buy the DVD

* This changed.

** This also changed.

*** In a stroke of bitter irony, I later found out that on the night of the concert performance in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, I was in a hotel room literally five minutes down the road watching Eurovision and arguing with my boss over who was going to win. If only I’d known!

Here are some wonderful photographs taken by Gérard Delacour at a performance of Artaserse at the Opéra National de Lorraine.

20 thoughts on “Artaserse: Leonardo Vinci (1730)

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    You're very welcome! I could happily talk about Artaserse for an entire evening (and, indeed, have done so on several occasions). It's a great story. Little did I know, when I wrote this post, what effect it was about to have on my life. A year and a half later, I've managed to see all but one of the singers live (Mynenko continues to elude me), tormented my neighbours by attempting to sing along, turned the story into a comic and had a whale of a time doing it all. Vinci and Metastasio between them have a lot to answer for…

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