Leonardo Vinci’s Artaserse is in many ways it’s a classic opera seria. The good guy roles are written for castrati but the baddies here too go to high voices; a castrato and a tenor. But what sets this apart is that it was written for Rome where it premiered in 1730. At that time women were not allowed on stage in the Papal States so the two female roles were played by castrati en travesti. In recreating it in 2012, l’opéra national de Lorraine chose to cast all five castrati roles with countertenors, producing a cast like nothing I’ve ever seen or heard.
The libretto is by Metastasio and is set at the Persian court. It’s convoluted and involves the murder of the king, a plot to overthrow the new one, two people falsely accused of the crime, a rather complex love polygon and much else. In the end, ofcourse, love and justice triumph but if you want to have any idea what goes on in between reading the synopsis is highly recommended. Musically it’s completely conventional with recits alternating with showy da capo arias until we get the big “happy” ensemble number at the end. It’s musically quite dramatic and interesting with Vinci making full use of the trumpets and percussion. Everybody gets opportunities to show off and, although it’s quite long at 3.5 hours I didn’t think it dragged.
Silviu Purcǎrete’s production is complex and spectacular. It’s sort of extreme baroque sci-fi meets Noh theatre greatly aided by Jerry Skelton’s designs, especially the costumes which are wild; ranging from Blackadder 3 fop outfits to Tim the Enchanter headgear via an outfit that looks like a meringue. At various times several characters are dressed virtually identically and at others what appears to be a small army of ASMs dressed in black with radio headsets appear to help the action along. Some director’s notes would have been really handy. But, confusing as it sometimes is, it’s rarely dull and often quite surprising.
Musical values are very high. First mention should go to the band; the always excellent Concerto Köln directed from the keyboard by Diego Fasolis. They make a very strong case for the score playing in an idiomatic and extremely dramatic way. The singing is mostly very fine too. Philippe Jaroussky may be the best of the lot in the challenging title role but he’s very well supported by Max Emanuel Cencic as his sister Mandane especially in her big revenge number. Franco Fagioli is appealing as the unjustly accused Arbace and Valer Barner-Sabadus is quite lyrical as his sister Semira. The baddies aren’t quite as impressive. Yury Mynenko is probably the weakest of the countertenors in the comparativly small part of Megabise but he does OK in his one big aria. tenor Juan Sancho is the arch villain Artabano and has a lot to do. I think maybe he just has too much to do and by the end his upper register sounds pinched and strained. That said there is a lot of beautifully controlled and dramatic baroque vocalism going on across the board.
Video direction is by Louise Narboni and it’s seriously quirky. There are lots of clseups and weird angles but there are also back stage shots while the action is going on and off stage angles for entrances and exits. I suspect this is supposed to be the same sort of idea as having the army of ASMs on stage. Something to do with theatre and artificiality? I really don’t know. The picture is pretty decent though stretched a bit by low lighting levels at many points. This could definitely have used a Blu-ray. Both the stereo and Dolby surround soundtracks are perfectly OK. There are no extras on the disk and the booklet is restricted to a synopsis. This unusual and little performed work, in a production like this, could really use some explicatory materials. The subtitle options are English, French, German and Italian.
All in all, this performance makes a pretty good case for Artaserse and I could see it getting done more often though likely with sopranos in the female roles. It’s definitely worth a look for those not completely allergic to countertenors.