Artaxerxes was one of the most important and successful of all English operas. It remained in the London repertoire almost continuously from its premiére in 1762 until the 1830s, and received a documented one hundred and eleven performances before 1790.
The young Mozart almost certainly attended a performance when he came to London in 1765, and Haydn was also acquainted with the work, reportedly saying that he “had no idea we had such an opera in the English language”.
Classical Opera’s recording of Artaxerxes, which followed our performances in The Royal Opera’s sell-out production of the work, marked our first collaboration with Linn Records, named Label of the Year at the 2010 Gramophone Awards. It was selected as a Recording of the Year by Audiophile Audition and by BBC Radio 3’s CD Review, and as Disc of the Month by Opera magazine.
“With this set, Artaxerxes has well and truly come in from the cold to earn a justly honoured place in the pantheon of opera history.” Opera
- Overture (Poco piu che andante – Larghetto – Gavotta)5:13
- Recitative: “Still silence reigns around”0:29
- No.1, Duettino: “Fair Aurora, prithee stay”2:16
- Recitative: “Alas, thou know’st that for my love to thee”1:13
- No.2, Air: “Adieu, thou lovely youth”3:21
- Recitative: “O cruel parting! How can I survive?”0:57
- No.3, Air: “Amid a thousand racking woes”4:38
- Recitative: “Be firm, my heart”1:26
- No.4, Air: “Behold, on Lethe’s dismal strand”3:36
- Recitative: “Stay, Artaxerxes, stay”0:29
- No.5, Air: “Fair Semira, lovely maid” 3:26
- Recitative: “I fear some dread disaster”1:29
- No.6, Air: “When real joy we miss”1:59
- Recitative: “Ye Gods, protectors of the Persian Empire”0:36
- No.7, Air: “How hard is the fate”4:01
- Recitative: “Whither do I fly?”3:23
- No.8, Air: “Thy father! Away, I renounce the soft claim”1:23
- Recitative: “Ye cruel Gods, what crime have I committed”0:14
- No.9, Air: “Acquit thee of this foul offence”1:27
- Recitative: “Appearance, I must own, is strong against me”0:48
- No.10, Air: “O too lovely, too unkind”4:24
- Accompanied recitative: “Dear and beloved shade”0:48
- No.11, Air: “Fly, soft ideas, fly”5:01
- Recitative: “Guards, speed ye to the tower”0:37
- No.12, Air: “In infancy, our hopes and fears”2:12
- Recitative: “So far my great resolve succeeds”1:28
- No.13, Air: “Disdainful you fly me”2:46
- Recitative: “Why, my dear friend, so pensive, so inactive?”2:05
- No.14, Air: “To sigh and complain”1:51
- Recitative: “How many links to dire misfortune’s chain”1:12
- No.15, Air: “If o’er the cruel tyrant love”3:00
- Recitative: “Which fatal evil shall I first oppose?”0:31
- No.16, Air: “If the river’s swelling waves”2:34
- Recitative: “Ye solid pillars of the Persian Empire”5:00
- No.17, Air: “By that belov’d embrace”3:31
- Recitative: “Ah me, at poor Arbaces’ parting”0:46
- No.18, Air: “Monster, away”2:36
- Recitative: “See, lov’d Semira”1:02
- Accompanied recitative: “At last my soul has room”0:37
- No.19, Air: “Thou, like the glorious sun”4:58
- No.20, Air: “Why is death for ever late”2:57
- Recitative: “Arbaces! Gracious Heav’n, what’s this I see?”1:13
- No.21, Air: “Water parted from the sea”2:19
- Recitative: “That face, secure in conscious innocence”0:25
- No.22, Air: “Though oft a cloud with envious shade”3:38
- Recitative: “My son, Arbaces… where art thou retir’d?”1:52
- No.23, Air: “O let the danger of a son”2:15
- Accompanied recitative: “Ye adverse Gods!”0:41
- No.24, Air: “O, much lov’d son, if death”5:15
- Recitative: “Perhaps the King releas’d Arbaces”1:34
- No.25, Air: “Let not rage, thy bosom firing”4:24
- Recitative: “What have I done? Alas, I vainly thought”0:24
- No.26, Air: “‘Tis not true that in our grief”4:08
- Recitative: “Nor here my searching eyes can find Mandane”1:20
- No.27, Duetto: “For thee I live, my dearest”3:37
- Recitative: “To you, my people, much belov’d”2:20
- No.28, Air: “The soldier, tir’d of war’s alarms”3:33
- Recitative: “Behold, my King, Arbaces at thy feet”2:25
- No.29, “Finale: Live to us, to Empire live”3:36
Mandane and Arbaces are in love, but Mandane’s father, King Xerxes, has banished Arbaces from the palace. Artabanes enters with a bloody sword, having just murdered Xerxes. He exchanges swords with his son, and tells Artaxerxes that his father must have been killed by Darius, Artaxerxes’ elder brother and heir to the throne; he offers to arrest Darius.
Artaxerxes expresses his love for Semira, Arbaces’ sister, who shrugs off the advances of Rimenes before considering how unhappy she would be were Artaxerxes to be killed.
Artabanes announces that he has had Darius executed, but Arbaces is then discovered with the blood-stained sword. He refuses to incriminate his father, leaving the other characters to contemplate his apparent guilt.
Artabanes offers to let Arbaces escape and lead a rebellion, but Arbaces refuses. Instead, Artabanes and Rimenes plot to kill Artaxerxes, with Semira offered as Rimenes’ reward. Torn by indecision, Artaxerxes places Arbaces’ fate in the hands of Artabanes, who condemns his son to death; Artaxerxes, though, permits a stay of execution. Mandane and Semira berate Artabanes and Artaxerxes respectively for their failure to save Arbaces.
Artaxerxes comes to Arbaces’ cell and enables him to escape. When Artabanes and Rimenes then arrive with the same intention and find the cell empty, they assume that Arbaces has already been executed; they resolve to take revenge on Artaxerxes by poisoning him as he takes his coronation oath. Meanwhile, Mandane is reunited with Arbaces, whom she thought dead.
At his coronation Artaxerxes is about to drink from the poisoned cup, but is interrupted by news that Arbaces has single-handedly quelled a rebellion led by Rimenes. Arbaces enters, and Artaxerxes offers him the cup with which to pledge his innocence. Artabanes is forced to intercept, confessing to the poison and to his previous crimes. Artaxerxes spares his life but banishes him from the kingdom, and the two couples – Arbaces and Mandane, Artaxerxes and Semira – are joyfully united.
Artaxerxes was in its time one of the most important and successful of all English operas. It remained in the London repertoire almost continuously from its premiere in 1762 until the 1830s, and received a documented one hundred and eleven performances before 1790. The young Mozart almost certainly attended a performance when he came to London in 1765, and Haydn was also acquainted with the work, reportedly saying that he “had no idea we had such an opera in the English language”.
In one respect the opera is indeed unique, in that it represents the only known attempt to write an Italianate, Metastasian opera seria in the English language. Metastasio’s original libretto was written in 1729 and first set to music by Vinci in 1730. It was subsequently set by over ninety composers, including Gluck (Milan, 1741) and J.C.Bach (Turin, 1760) – in both cases, incidentally, the composer’s very first opera – in locations ranging from Padua to Stockholm. Arne was probably already familiar with the version by Hasse, which was performed in London in 1754.
The English version of the libretto was published anonymously, but it has generally been assumed to be the work of Arne himself, as is intimated by Charles Burney’s rather caustic observation that “the number of his unfortunate pieces for the stage was prodigious; yet none of them were condemned or neglected for want of merit in the music, but words, of which the doctor was too frequently guilty of being the author.” In the preface to the printed libretto the author confesses that it is his “first attempt of the kind”, but although the text is often stilted and convoluted, especially to modern sensibilities, it nonetheless serves the music effectively, and Burney’s condemnation now seems perhaps unjustly harsh.
Thomas Arne was born in 1710 at the Crown and Cushion, King Street, Covent Garden, the son of an upholsterer and coffin-maker. He is best known today as the composer of “Rule, Britannia!”, but his output was immense. His settings of Comus (1738), Alfred (which includes the original setting of “Rule, Britannia!”) and The Judgement of Paris (both 1740) established him as the leading English theatre composer of his day, and he also enjoyed great success with the songs he wrote for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, As You Like It and Twelfth Night. After he was appointed resident composer at Drury Lane in 1744, though, his popularity and productivity quickly waned, and he was not to have another major success for nearly twenty years. Then, just as suddenly, he had three triumphs in as many years, with Thomas and Sally (1760), Artaxerxes and Love in a Village (both 1762). His greatest critical success was probably his 1761 oratorio Judith, but it never achieved the success of Artaxerxes, whose fusion of opera seria in the florid Italian style sung in English proved hugely popular with singers and audiences alike.
Arne suffered growing financial troubles during his final years, although he wrote some of his best works during this time, including the Shakespearean Ode (1769). He became seriously ill in late 1777, and died on 5 March 1778 in Bow Street, Covent Garden.
The First Performance
Artaxerxes received its first performance on 2 February 1762 at Covent Garden. At that time the most important opera house in London was the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, which was exclusively (in both senses of the word) devoted to the performance of Italian opera; most of the composers who worked there were, like the singers, imported from Italy, although the two most sucessful and famous – J.C.Bach and, earlier in the century, Handel – were both German. Meanwhile Covent Garden and Drury Lane, the capital’s two other main theatres, performed English operas in an era when there was a general dearth of local talent – Arne was by some distance the most important English composer of his age.
The cast for the first performance of Artaxerxes was led by Charlotte Brent as Mandane and Ferdinando Tenducci as Arbaces. Charlotte Brent (1735-1802) was the most celebrated English singer of her time. She had received a rapturous reception at her debut as Polly in The Beggar’s Opera in 1759, and was not only Arne’s long-standing pupil but also his mistress. In 1755 Arne and his wife (another singer, Cecilia Young, who had appeared in Arne’s Comus but who was now seemingly starting to contradict her surname) had travelled to Ireland to introduce his student to the Dublin public, but he returned to London at the end of the season with Miss Brent, having legally contracted to provide his wife with an allowance of £40 a year. The Italian castrato Tenducci (1735-1790) had come to London in 1758, and subsequently lived and performed in England, Scotland and Ireland for almost thirty years. Unusually for a castrato he married, but his bride’s family were so furious that they promptly kidnapped her and had the bridegroom thrown in prison. Tenducci enjoyed great fame in London, and the young Mozart made his acquaintance here and was greatly moved by his singing. Burney wrote that his performance in Artaxerxes “had a rapid effect upon the public taste, and stimulated to imitation all that were possessed of good ears and flexible voices”, and he achieved more lasting recognition in Tobias Smollett’s novel Humphrey Clinker, in which Lydia Melford comments: “I heard the famous Tenducci, a thing from Italy – it looks for all the world like a man, though they say it is not. The voice, to be sure is neither man’s nor woman’s, but it is more melodious than either, and it warbled divinely, that while I listened I really thought myself in paradise.”
The title role, which unusually is one of the smaller roles, was taken by another Italian castrato, Peretti, while the three remaining roles were taken by English singers, led by John Beard (1717-1791) in the role of Artabanes. At the beginning of his career Beard had worked extensively with Handel, singing more parts under the composer than any other singer, including roles in ten of his operas and all of his English oratorios. In addition he was a very popular Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera, and sang in many works by Arne, Lampe and Boyce. In 1762 he was also the manager of Covent Garden, and his refusal to reduce prices provoked riots during a performance of Artaxerxes, which wrecked the auditorium and caused damage worth £2,000. The cast was completed by Miss Thomas in the role of Semira and George Mattocks as Rimenes.
In keeping with the style of the day, the music of Artaxerxes is very much aria-dominated, with twenty-six of the twenty-eight surviving numbers being solo arias. The conventional hierarchy of roles is also maintained, with the prima donna and the primo uomo each having two arias in each act, as well as two duets together. The remaining characters all have one aria in each act, except Semira and Artabanes, who both also have a short second aria in Act One. The music ranges from a series of exquisite slow airs, such as Arbaces’ “O too lovely, too unkind” and “Why is death forever late?”, to Mandane’s three virtuosic showpieces culminating in the famous “The soldier, tir’d of war’s alarms”, which quickly became a touchstone for vocal virtuosity and which in more recent times was championed by Dame Joan Sutherland. It is also interesting to note how each character has musical features that are peculiar to that role – Artabanes’ two outer arias both follow exactly the same unusual pattern – a plaintive slow opening leading to a fiery Presto before culminating in a gentler final section – while Arbaces has a sobbing dotted motive that recurs in several of his arias but which does not appear in anyone else’s music.
Artaxerxes is also remarkable for the richness of its scoring. Arne had been the first English composer to include clarinets in his orchestra, and he uses wind instruments with great imagination and variety throughout the opera. One of the most exquisite pieces of scoring, though is for strings only. In Arbaces’ Act One aria, “O too lovely, too unkind”, violins are muted and cellos and basses pizzicato, while divided violas weave a sustained backdrop to the vocal line in a way which we might now consider to be archetypally Mozartian; indeed, this aria is merely the strongest of a number of suggestions throughout the score of Arne’s influence on the young Mozart.
Modern performances of Artaxerxes have been limited by the fact that none of the recitatives have survived; the original performing material was destroyed when Covent Garden burnt down in 1808, and, as was customary, the full score published in the 18th century had omitted all the recitatives and the finale. Subsequent 19th century performances used recitatives which were written by Henry Bishop, Covent Garden’s musical director from 1810 to 1824, but for this evening’s performance we will be performing only the music that we know with certainty is original and authentic Arne. For some time now I have in any case been toying with the possibility of giving a concert performance of an opera using a narrator instead of recitative, in an attempt to engage the audience more directly and dynamically in the unfolding of the story; Artaxerxes’ incomplete survival provides us with an ideal opportunity to experiment with this form of presentation. We very much hope that you are moved and impressed by this wonderful opera.
Christopher Ainslie appeared with Classical Opera in the title role of the Royal Opera’s production of Arne’s Artaxerxes and in our subsequent recording of the work, as Zephyrus in our recording of Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus, and in concert at Wigmore Hall. Christopher has rapidly established himself as a leading interpreter of the countertenor repertoire, and highlights on the opera stage include Innocent 4 (Birtwistle’s The Minotaur) at the Royal Opera House, Ottone (L’incoronazione di Poppea) and Eustazio (Rinaldo) at Glyndebourne, Voice of Apollo (Death in Venice) for Opéra de Lyon, Ottone (Poppea) at Drottningholm, the title role in Tamerlano at the Göttingen Handel Festival, and Oberon (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Voice of Apollo and Ottone for Opera North.
Elizabeth Watts sings Mandane on Classical Opera’s recording of Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes. She won the 2006 Kathleen Ferrier Award and the Song Prize at the 2007 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. Mozart roles include Zerlina (Don Giovanni) for the Royal Opera and Pamina (Die Zauberflöte), Susanna and the Countess (Le nozze di Figaro) and Fiordiligi (Così fan tutte) for Welsh National Opera, and Susanna for Santa Fe Opera. Other roles include Marzelline (Fidelio) for the Royal Opera, Almirena (Rinaldo) for Glyndebourne on Tour, and Iole (Hercules) and Tigrane (Radamisto) in concert with Harry Bicket and The English Concert.
Caitlin Hulcup appears as Arbaces on Classical Opera’s recording of Thomas Arne’s Artaxerxes. Mozart opera roles include Dorabella (Così fan tutte) at the Wiener Staatsoper, Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni) at the Palau de les Arts Valencia, and Sesto (La clemenza di Tito) with Taipei Symphony, as well as Zerlina (Don Giovanni) and Cherubino (Le nozze di Figaro). Other opera roles include Enriquetta (I puritani) and Rosina (Il barbiere di Siviglia) at the Wiener Staatsoper, Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier) for Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, the Bolshoi Theatre and the NCPA Beijing, Aristeo Rossi’s Orpheus for the Royal Opera House, and the title role in Gluck’s Orfeo (Scottish Opera).
Andrew Staples became an inaugural Associate Artist of Classical Opera in 2006. With the company, he has appeared as Ferrando (Così fan tutte), Alessandro (Il re pastore) and Artabanes (Artaxerxes), and has sung in numerous concerts at Wigmore Hall, the Barbican and Kings Place. He also appears on our recording ‘The A-Z of Mozart Opera’. Andrew made his Royal Opera House début as Jacquino (Fidelio), returning as Flamand (Capriccio), Tamino (Die Zauberflöte), Artabenes (Arne’s Artaxerxes) and Narraboth (Salome), and has sung Belfiore (La finta giardiniera) for the National Theatre, Prague and Don Ottavio (Don Giovanni) for the Salzburger Festspiele. Other engagements include concerts with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and London Symphony Orchestra among others.
Rebecca Bottone became an inaugural Associate Artist of Classical Opera in 2006. Her appearances with the company have included Sabina (Adriano in Siria), Sifare (Mitridate, re di Ponto), Servilia (Gluck’s La clemenza di Tito), Melia (Apollo et Hyacinthus), Despina (Così fan tutte), Elisa (Il re pastore) and Semira (Artaxerxes), as well as numerous concerts at Wigmore Hall and Kings Place. She can also be heard on our recordings of Artaxerxes and ‘The A-Z of Mozart Opera’. Other roles include Blonde (Die Entführung aus dem Serail) for the Aix-en-Provence Festival and Scottish Opera, First Innocent (world premiére of Birtwistle’s The Minotaur), Maid (Ades’ Powder Her Face) and First Niece (Peter Grimes) at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Cricket and Parrott (world premiére of Dove’s Pinocchio) for Opera North and Tytania (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) for Garsington Opera.
Daniel Norman sings the role of Rimenes on Classical Opera’s recording of Thomas Arne’s Artaxexes. His numerous opera roles include Mime (Das Rheingold) for Oviedo Opera, Red Whiskers (Billy Budd) for Glyndebourne in New York, White Minister (Grand Macabre) for English National Opera, the title role in Arne’s Alfred for the Early Opera Company at the Covent Garden Festival, and Borsa (Rigoletto) in his début for the Royal Opera. Daniel appears on several recordings, including four volumes of the Hyperion Schubert Edition with Graham Johnson, the Grammy nominated recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with Osmo Vänskä and Minnesota Orchestra, and his début solo disc, Britten’s Winter Words and Who Are These Children? with Christopher Gould (BIS).
Ian Page is the founder, conductor and Artistic Director of Classical Opera and The Mozartists. He began his musical education as a chorister at Westminster Abbey, and studied at the University of York and the Royal Academy of Music. Before founding in Classical Opera in 1997, he worked on the music staff at Scottish Opera, Opera Factory, Drottningholm and Glyndebourne.
With Classical Opera he has conducted most of Mozart’s early operas, including the world premières of the ‘original’ version of Mitridate, re di Ponto and a new completion of Zaide, as well as Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and La clemenza di Tito. He has also conducted the UK premières of Gluck’s La clemenza di Tito, Telemann’s Orpheus, Jommelli’s Il Vologeso and Haydn’s Applausus, and the first new staging for 250 years of Johann Christian Bach’s Adriano in Siria. In 2009 he made his Royal Opera House début conducting Arne’s Artaxerxes at the Linbury Studio Theatre, and his studio recording of the work was released in 2011 on Linn Records.
He has devised and conducted numerous recordings for Classical Opera, including ‘The A-Z of Mozart Opera’ and ‘Blessed Spirit – a Gluck retrospective’ (both selected for Gramophone magazine’s annual Critic’s Choice), ‘Where’er You Walk’ with tenor Allan Clayton and ‘Perfido!’ with soprano Sophie Bevan (both shortlisted for the International Opera Awards in 2016 and 2017 respectively), and ‘Mozart in London’, which was recorded live during Classical Opera’s festival of the same name at Barbican’s Milton Court in 2015. In 2012 he embarked on a new complete cycle of Mozart opera recordings, aiming to record all of Mozart’s stage works over the course of twenty years . He is the creator and driving force behind MOZART 250, a ground-breaking 27-year journey through Mozart’s life, works and influences, and in 2017 he founded The Mozartists to facilitate the company’s ever-expanding concert work.
He is widely recognised for his work in developing talented young singers, and is in demand as a vocal coach. He serves on the coaching staff for the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House and for the Royal College of Music, and provides bespoke training to young singers through Classical Opera’s Associate Artist Scheme.
Updated 3 July 2018
Comprising some of the leading players from both the UK and further afield, The Mozartists have won widespread acclaim from public and critics alike. They play on period instruments and perform symphonies and concertos as well as operas.