Sunday, July 23, 2017

Artaserse with 5 Countertenors

Artabano, Mandane, Arbace, Megabise, Artaserse, Semira.  I think.

Conductor–Diego Fasolis
Director--Silviu Purcărete

Artaserse, Prince and then King of Persia; friend of Arbace, in love with Semira--Philippe Jeroussky
Mandane, Sister of Artaserse; in love with Arbace (en travesti) -- Max Emanuel Cencic
Artabano, Prefect of the Royal Guard; father of Arbace and Semira-- Juan Sancho
Arbace, Brother of Semira; Friend of Artaserse; in love with Mandane-- Franco Fagioli
Semira, Sister of Arbace; in love with Artaserse (en travesti)--Valer Barna Sabadus
Megabise, General of the Persian Army, confidant of Artabano; in love with Semira --Yuriy Mynenko

This is a film of the opera Artaserse by Leonardo Vinci on a libretto by Metastasio which was first performed in Rome in 1730.  It was the last opera for Vinci who died that year, and the first for Metastasio.  Vinci is one of the great Baroque Italian composers whose operas are only now being revived.  Women were not allowed on the stage in Rome, so all the characters were originally sung by castrati except Artabano who is a tenor and the villain.  This performance exists to remind us that opera is an Italian art form.

All the castrati are here countertenors and some of the most famous countertenors of our time.  These guys are amazing.  The opening pair are Cencic and Fagioli, both incredible, and the music is gorgeous.  The range of colors in our 5 countertenors is pretty fascinating.  It remains to be seen if the fascination will wear off before the opera ends.  So far 6 Rossini tenors pales in comparison.  They have been assembled in Nancy in the west of France.

At the start there is some breaking of the fourth wall in case you missed that these are all guys.  Some start out in their modern clothing, for instance.  Stagehands appear, and all of them are girls.  Hmmm. These are theatrical stagehands--when the real stagehands appear, they are all men.

There is an attempt here to present Baroque costumes, though they seem to suddenly appear and disappear.  Now that Artaserse is king he appears in an incredible white wig with horns and a white outfit.  Then Artabano appears in the same outfit.  Jeroussky has the most beautiful voice, but there is much to admire here.  The most spectacular is probably Fagioli, but they're all pretty amazing.

Plot.  There is an offstage murder of the present king, Artaserse's brother.  This makes Artaserse king and causes a lot of accusations.  Artabano is probably to blame.  He and Megabise plot to marry Semira to Megabise instead of Artaserse.  Since the male characters all wear the same white outfit, it's very hard to keep track of who is who.  Some visual help would have been good.  Artabano tries to poison Artaserse, but when it appears that Arbace will drink the poison, Artabano confesses.  It has a happy ending, as do almost all opera seria.

What it is actually about is singing, of course.  If you are at all curious to know what Baroque opera was really like, this is probably your best opportunity.  This is the Italian Baroque opera and not the French version which had no castrati.  These guys belt it out in a way that is surprising.  It is a unique experience, unlike anything I have seen in all my years of going to the opera.


Jaroussky removes his hats and wigs as soon as possible, giving the impression that he doesn't much care for dressing up.  The tenor is banished.  All six characters return for a song at the end.  One of the "girls" brings out the conductor.  The music is spectacular, not just the singing.  Find a way to add this to your experience of opera.

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