Opera seria’s litany of solo arias can often seem like crossing a desert until the welcome cloudburst of a late duo or concluding chorus.
Artaserse (1730), a prime example of Neapolitan opera, and Leonardo Vinci’s last work, is no exception to the rule: a rota of individual vocal fireworks, an 18th-century Naples’ Got Talent, it uses a Metastasio libretto of conflicting relationships and high improbability to stretch the action over three acts. But sign up some of the world’s best countertenors to sing five of the six roles, bag the excellent Concerto Köln and a long evening flies by.
This is what Nancy has just done triumphantly, barely one month after the release of a Virgin Classics CD set with practically the same artists; astute marketing, but also useful musical archaeology. Vinci, no relation to his Renaissance namesake, is now largely forgotten. We are told he influenced Pergolesi and Handel but legacy is often faint praise damning overlooked composers to more time on the shelf.
This time, it may be different: Diego Fasolis’s boisterous conducting also delivers dovetailed nuance, highlighting Vinci’s melodic strengths and saving the piece from turning into a freak tribute to castrati.
The singing is spectacular, virtuoso but always intensely musical. Countertenor, however, now seems a misnomer for these high falsetto voices: Philippe Jaroussky’s crystalline and expertly projected warbling in the title role and Max Emanuel Cencic’s spectacular vehemence as Mandane, his sister, are both firmly in sopranist territory. Valer Barna-Sabadus flutters sweetly as Semira and Yuriy Mynenko is an explosive Megabise.
Franco Fagioli’s phenomenal Arbace, the role written for superstar castrato Carestini, is in a class of his own, vaulting from robust low notes to an exquisitely covered top register. Close your eyes and this velvet force could be Cecilia Bartoli.
Arbace’s hit tune “Vo solcando un mar crudele” at the end of Act 1 had the audience clamouring for a curtain call, even after the lights went on. A pity that producer Silviu Purcarete presented this noble aria as a send-up of diva antics. Harbouring behind a theatre-within-a-theatre concept, he certainly proves his presence but relies too much on camp capers and exaggerated gesture. Helmut Stürmer’s lavish costumes, a festival of feathers and taffeta, move from flamboyant cross-dressing meets Pierre Cardin (Act 1) to grand siècle in Act 2 and all the way back again for the third act. They raise chuckles, but ultimately works such as this stand or fall on the quality of the singing. Upcoming concert performances in Lausanne, Vienna and Paris should easily establish Artaserse’s viability and reinforce what looks like turning into a cult following.