Only in 18th century opera could a man/woman fitted up by his own father for a murder he did not commit be at one and the same time mourned and disowned by his father, sister, best friend, and lover.
Hundreds of well-honed notes pass through collective vocal chords before wrongs are righted and the natural order restored. Clearly Thomas Arne - the man who gave us “Rule, Britannia!” and lived just round the corner from the Covent Garden piazza – could spin operatic sensibilities with the best of them and here, by way of an early 300th birthday present, exquisitely gift-wrapped for the occasion, is one of his most successful offerings: Artaxerxes.
Not a durable masterwork by any stretch of the imagination but a lively musical entertainment for sure graced by several stand-out numbers and a way with the orchestra that would not have disgraced his more illustrious contemporaries. Ian Page, who prepared this restoration for the Classical Opera Company and its excellent orchestra, makes capital of what were at the time new-fangled novelties like clarinets and his collaborator, director Martin Duncan, duly puts them on stage to lend added spice to the theatrics.
It looks an absolute treat. A midnight blue box festooned with twinkling starlights descends into a pristine white orchestral pit while faceless figures quite literally manoeuvre the six principal characters into position, mirroring their gestures and even manipulating their limbs and bodies into appropriately expressive attitudes. In the intimate space of the Linbury Studio we can admire the sumptuous detail of Johan Engels’ beautiful costumes presented on occasions against screens of vivid colour to intensify the mood of the moment. Think Ancient Persia and all the exquisite paintings you’ve ever seen animated in the manner of elaborate 18th century mechanical dolls.
Nothing mechanical about the vocal skills of this excellent group of young singers, though it did surprise me that Arne made so little of his castrato – now countertenor Christopher Ainslie – in the title role. Most of his music sits in the lower alto reaches of the voice, a deployment which frankly did Ainslie no favours. The showiest numbers are shared between the cruelly duped Arbaces – the excellent Caitlin Hulcup – who gets the score’s most enduring gem “O too lovely, too unkind”, an aching plaint spun over muted violins and divided violas – and our own rising star Elizabeth Watts as Mandane whose ear-popping pyrotechnics run the gamut of emotion as capricious as her personality.