Thomas Arne was one of the great survivors of eighteenth-century theatrical life: in his early twenties he put on an unauthorized production of Acis and Galatea that prodded Handel into taking English seriously as a language for theatrical works. It should therefore come as no surprise that in the three years from 1759 he has three smash hits of his own, each an original masterpiece that effectively created a new genre.
Artaxerxes, the second of these, was the first attempt to set a full-blown opera seria libretto in English.
The story of the rebellious captain of the guard's attempts to usurp the Persian throne in the fifth century BC had captured the attention of several composers, but Arne's opera particularly successful because it was an excellent vehicle for great singing. Mandane's spectacular aria 'The Soldier, tir'd of War's Alarms' remained a show-piece for sopranos through much of the nineteenth century and has never entirely dropped out of the repertory.
When Haydn saw Artaxerxes in 1791 he was delighted with it and reportedly said he 'had no idea we had such an opera in the English language'.
Thomas Arne was one of the great survivors of eighteenth-century theatrical life. His career began brilliantly. In his early twenties he put on an unauthorized production of Acis and Galatea that prodded Handel into taking English seriously as a language for theatrical works. A few years later his own masques Comus and Alfred established him as the leading English theatre composer, a reputation that was confirmed by the delightful incidental music he wrote in the early 1740s for Shakespeare’s plays; his settings are still the ones most people associate with ‘Blow, blow thou winter wind’, ‘Where the bee sucks’ or ‘Under the greenwood tree’. Thereafter, for one reason or another, Arne did not have a major success for nearly twenty years. He wrote an immense amount of theatre music of all types during this period, but most of it was a failure and was never printed, and is therefore lost today. He was dogged by his quarrelsome disposition, the failure of his marriage (his wife Cecilia was his leading lady), and his tendency to write his own librettos—he was no writer. By the late 1750s he was short of money and resorted to publishing some of the music he had written over the two previous decades.
With this in mind, we can appreciate the scale of his achievement at the beginning of the next decade. Things began to look up in 1759 when he received a doctorate from Oxford University and launched the stage career of his pupil and mistress Charlotte Brent. In the next three years he had three smash hits in a row, each an original masterpiece that effectively created a new genre. Thomas and Sally, produced at Covent Garden on 28 November 1760, was an imitation of La serva padrona and the other all-sung Italian burlettas that had been presented so successfully by Italian troupes all over northern Europe in the 1750s; it was, in effect, the first English comic opera. Artaxerxes, produced at Covent Garden on 2 February 1762, was the serious equivalent of Thomas and Sally. It was the first attempt to set a full-blown opera seria libretto in English. Love in a Village, produced on 8 December of the same year, was equally novel: it was a modernized ballad opera, with borrowed Italian arias and specially composed numbers as well as folk tunes, all orchestrated in an up-to-date manner. It began a vogue for pastiche opera that lasted well into the nineteenth century.
The libretto Arne chose for his opera seria was not new. Metastasio wrote it in 1729, when it was set by Hasse and Vinci, and it subsequently attracted the attention of Gluck, Graun, Jommelli and J C Bach, among others. Arne probably knew the Hasse version, for it was given in London in 1754. The libretto was published anonymously, but it has been assumed to be his own work: in the preface the author admits that it is his ‘first attempt of the kind’, and defends his work by quoting Dryden: ‘No critic can justly determine the merit or difficulty of writing a poem for music, ’till he has been frequently conversant with some skilful musician, and acquired, by experience, a knowledge of what is most proper for musical expression.’ It must be said that this did not save Arne from a number of stilted passages, but in general the adapted libretto (‘leaving out many beauties in the narrative part of the drama, for the sake of brevity’) is an effective vehicle for the music.
Artaxerxes has not come down to us complete. We are fortunate that he published it in full score in 1762, but the three volumes omit the recitatives and the final chorus (which, following opera seria practice, was probably essentially an ensemble of the soloists). The original performing material was apparently lost in the fire that destroyed the first Covent Garden theatre in 1808, but since the opera was still in the repertory, a new, shortened version was made by Henry Bishop in 1813, and this was later published in vocal score by John Addison, who provided an invaluable stage-history of the work in the preface. Addison included Bishop’s anachronistic settings of part of the final chorus and one of the accompanied recitatives, as well as about half the secco recitatives required by the 1762 libretto.
It has been assumed that the secco recitatives are also Bishop’s work, composed after Arne’s were lost, but the late Roger Fiske pointed out that they survive in a mangled form, with awkward key transitions at the point where Bishop made cuts, or in those places where arias had been transposed to suit changing vocal requirements. Thus, they seem to precede these changes, and they probably derive from a manuscript of the original version of the work that survived the 1808 fire at Covent Garden. Earlier modern revivals (conducted by Charles Farncombe at the St Pancras Festival in March 1962 and by Maurits Sillem for the BBC in 1979) essentially used the Bishop-Addison version, but for this recording I have attempted to reconstruct the work as originally performed in 1762. I have revised the surviving recitatives, replacing their unstylish piano part with an eighteenth-century bass line and removing the more dubious ornaments. I have also composed the missing recitatives and borrowed material for two numbers in Comus to provide a setting of the chorus.
In part, Artaxerxes was successful because it was an excellent vehicle for great singing. In the original cast Charlotte Brent sang Mandane, and the great Handelian tenor John Beard (by then the manager of Covent Garden and near the end of his career) took the part of the villain Artabanes. The two castrato parts, Arbaces and Artaxerxes, were taken by Tenducci and Peretti, while the lesser roles of Rimenes and Semira were sung by George Mattocks and Miss Thomas. The role of Arbaces was and is a particular problem, since it is too high for countertenors, and after the first production it was usually played as a breeches part by a female mezzo-soprano—a solution we have adopted in this recording. Virtually all the great singers of the period sang in the opera over the next few decades, including Elizabeth Billington, Charles Incledon, Charles Frederick Reinhold, Anne Catley, Anna Maria Crouch and Elizabeth Mara. Mandane’s spectacular aria in Act III, ‘The Soldier, tir’d of War’s Alarms’, remained a show-piece for sopranos through much of the nineteenth century, and has never entirely dropped out of the repertory.
Charles Burney, who could never resist a sly dig at his former teacher, accused Arne of crowding ‘the airs, particularly in the part of Mandane for Miss Brent, with most of the Italian divisions and difficulties which had ever been heard at the opera’, though he admitted that ‘Arne had the merit of first adapting many of the best passages of Italy, which all Europe admired, to our own language’. In fact Arne was just the first English composer to expand the Baroque vocal technique established in England by Handel, and his innovations, brilliantly demonstrated in performance by Charlotte Brent, were soon taken up by other English composers. Arne was one of the great singing teachers of the period, witness Thomas Busby’s story in his Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes (1825):
Of all the English singing-masters of the last century, no one was so attentive to that first of vocal excellencies, articulation, as Dr. Arne. His favourite scholar, Miss Brent, afterwards Mrs. Pinto, and the original Mandane, was more remarkable for the distinctness of her pronunciation, than any British prima donna that has since appeared. The aquisition, however, was made at the expense of infinite labour to the tutor, and no small mortification to the pupil. What he would only allow to be difficult, she would often pronounce to be impossible: but he never relaxed in his exactions of her application, till his success convinced her of her mistake. On one occasion, the lady gave at once a striking proof of her impatience and her taste. Exasperated with fatigue, she absolutely refused to practise any longer a particular song, in which the Doctor was anxious she should be perfect; upon which he threatened to find another singer for her intended part in Artaxerxes. The menace was no sooner uttered than she burst into tears, and said, she would rather practise night and day, till she pleased him in the song, than not be one of the performers of the exquisite music of that opera, about half of which was then composed.
Artaxerxes is also remarkable for the richness of its scoring. Arne wrote effectively for the orchestra in a Handelian idiom from the beginning of his career, but in the 1750s he began to be much more adventurous. He was the first English composer to use the clarinet, and in Artaxerxes he deploys wind instruments with verve and brilliance, though in such a way that the sound of a complete Classical orchestra could be produced by about a dozen players: the oboists also played flutes and clarinets, while the occasional trumpet and timpani parts might have been taken by spare violinists. The first Act of Artaxerxes opens with a striking evocation of the dawn, rendered by a wind band with double bass and continuo but without cellos. In ‘Water parted from the Sea’, the famous simile aria sung by Arbaces in Act III, the flowing river is beautifully portrayed by dense writing for pairs of clarinets, horns and bassoons with strings. But Arne did not rely just on rich wind writing. In ‘O too lovely, too unkind’, sung by Arbaces in Act I, he achieved equally striking effects just with strings, muting the violins, dividing the violas and mixing pizzicato and arco.
Perhaps the most striking feature of Arne’s opera is its stylistic diversity. In opera seria character is revealed through a series of contrasted arias, varied in scoring and mood; the leading roles appear as more rounded characters simply because they have the most numbers. In Artaxerxes Arne took this technique a stage further, reserving the most advanced and richly scored arias for the main characters. Most of those sung by Arbaces and Mandane are in the galant style, and have prominent wind solos, while the three sung by Rimenes are scored only for strings: one is in the Handelian style, and the others are in the simple and charming folk-like idiom Arne had pioneered in the 1730s. Variety of this sort aided characterization and made large-scale works agreeably varied, but modern critics, influenced by nineteenth-century ideas of progress and unity in art, tend to see it as a weakness.
Two centuries on, it is hard to understand how important Artaxerxes was at the time, and how important it might have been. We know that it did not lead to the founding of a national school of all-sung serious opera. Londoners continued to be entertained by Italian opera seria and pastiche English comic operas with spoken dialogue far into the nineteenth century. But that was not obvious in the 1760s, and subsequent developments were mainly the result of a series of historical accidents. Artaxerxes certainly inspired a number of imitations, and had the right composer been on hand to develop what Arne started, things might have been very different. As it was, the opera held the stage for more than seventy years, and must have been familiar to virtually every educated person in London. Haydn, who saw it in 1791, was delighted with it, and reportedly said he ‘had no idea we had such an opera in the English language’. Few people in modern times can have said anything else.
Peter Holman © 1995