Released to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Thomas Arne, the composer of Rule, Britannia!, The Classical Opera Company presents the first complete recording of Artaxerxes. The original scores for the opera were burned in a fire in Drury Lane Theatre—only the orchestral parts and the libretto, and some of the music survived. Noted musicologist Duncan Druce recreated the Finale and the Company's director Ian Page the recitatives for this, the new performing edition, which was premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2009. The opera contains several well-known arias, including 'The soldier tir'd', made famous by the late Joan Sutherland.
The Classical Opera Company, which was founded by Ian Page in 1997, specialises in the music of Mozart and his contemporaries whilst performing with its own period-instrument orchestra. The Classical Opera Company has also established an outstanding track-record for its work in discovering and developing world-class young artists. Listen to the soloists in Artaxerxes (Christopher Ainslie, Elizabeth Watts, Caitlin Hulcup, Andrew Staples, Rebecca Bottone and Daniel Norman) to hear why The Classical Opera Company is regarded as one of Britain's most exciting and highly regarded young arts organizations.
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The life of Thomas Arne was inextricably linked with Covent Garden. He was born just off the famous piazza, on King Street, on 12 March 1710, and died, a week before his sixty-eighth birthday, in Bow Street. Nowadays a street named in the composer’s honour is situated within a minute’s walk of the Royal Opera House, just off Long Acre.
Arne’s greatest opera, Artaxerxes, was premiered at the Theatre Royal, the predecessor of the Royal Opera House, on 2 February 1762, and remained in the Covent Garden repertory until the late 1830s, receiving a documented one hundred and eleven performances before 1790. The young Mozart almost certainly attended a performance when he came to London in the mid 1760s, and Haydn was also acquainted with the work, enthusiastically exclaiming that he ‘had no idea we had such an opera in the English language’.
The main reason for the work’s subsequent neglect is a good one: the manuscript and all the original performance materials were burnt in the disastrous fire which destroyed the Theatre Royal in 1808. The opera’s overture, arias and duets had already been published, and so survive intact, as does the libretto, but none of the recitatives or the finale were printed, and they are therefore lost. This recording of Artaxerxes was made following a new production of the opera at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in November 2009. To create a complete version of the work for this production I wrote new recitatives, and commissioned the musicologist, composer and baroque violinist Duncan Druce to create a new finale in the style of Arne. These are included in this recording.
The English translation of the libretto for Artaxerxes was published anonymously, but is known to have been the work of Arne himself. Charles Burney was rather damning of this aspect of Arne’s work, writing 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 attempts to deflect criticism by asserting that it is his ‘first attempt of the kind’, but in truth the text is not without its merits, and generally serves the music effectively.
The first performance
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, however, is for strings alone. In Arbaces’ ‘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 quintessentially Mozartian. Indeed, this aria is merely the strongest of a number of suggestions throughout the score of Arne’s influence on the young Mozart.
New performing edition
Nineteenth century revivals following the Covent Garden fire of 1808 used a new version of the opera created in 1813 by Sir Henry Bishop, Covent Garden’s musical director from 1810 to 1824, for which he wrote new, heavily cut recitatives and a finale. These, though, made scarcely any attempt to recreate an eighteenth century idiom, and are stylistically far removed from Arne’s surviving work. This is not that surprising; Bishop would probably not have thought twice about writing in his own contemporary style, living as he did in an age when it was still rare to perform ‘old’ music, and the half century that separates his work from Arne’s original had witnessed not only the complete works of Mozart but also all but one of Beethoven’s symphonies.
For the 2009 Royal Opera production of Artaxerxes and this recording, I composed new recitatives, including the four which Arne set with orchestral accompaniment, that are hopefully comparable to the style of the early 1760s. This was a time-consuming but not especially arduous process, as recitative was a fairly basic and standardized form which evolved little between the death of Handel and the composition of Mozart’s Da Ponte operas. Considerably more skilful is Duncan Druce’s new setting ‘after Arne’ of the finale, complete with the duet passages prescribed in the libretto. But I’m sure I speak for Duncan as well as myself in saying that these recreations have not been undertaken with any delusions of grandeur, but merely as a means of enabling this remarkable and beautiful opera to be presented in a complete dramatic form.
Ian Page © 2010