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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.
A 24-bit 192 kHz studio master for this album is available from the Linn Records website.
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.
Arne’s father, an upholsterer and coffin-maker, originally intended him for a career in the legal profession. With this in mind he had sent him to Eton College, but his son’s determination to become a musician was unwavering (as a child he had smuggled a spinet into his bedroom and dampened the strings with a handkerchief, so that he could practice at night while the rest of the family slept), and his father eventually consented to his son’s choice of profession. Arne is best known today as the composer of ‘Rule, Britannia!’, which was originally written as part of the masque Alfred, but his output was immense. His settings of Comus (1738), Alfred (1740) and The Judgement of Paris (1742) 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. Soon, though, his productivity and popularity began to wane, 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 acclaim was reserved for his 1761 oratorio Judith, but this never achieved the success of Artaxerxes, whose fusion of ‘opera seria’ in the Italian style sung in English proved hugely popular with singers and audiences alike.
The bedrock of Italian ‘opera seria’ throughout the middle of the eighteenth century was the prolific series of opera texts by the Italian poet and librettist Pietro Metastasio (1698-1782). Over eight hundred operas from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were settings of Metastasio, and his Artaserse, which was originally written in 1729 and first set by Vinci the following year, 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 Hasse’s setting, which was performed in London in 1754.
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 received its first performance on 2 February 1762, with a cast led by Charlotte Brent as Mandane and Ferdinando Tenducci as Arbaces. Charlotte Brent (1735-1802) had received a rapturous reception at her debut as Polly in The Beggar’s Opera in 1759. She was not only Arne’s long-standing pupil but also, since 1755, his mistress, so it is not surprising that she was given much of the opera’s most virtuosic writing. The great Italian castrato, Tenducci (1735-1790) had come to London in 1758, and was to stay in Britain for almost thirty years. Unusually for a castrato he married, but his bride’s family was so furious that they promptly kidnapped her and had her illustrious bridegroom thrown into prison. The young Mozart met Tenducci in London and was greatly moved by his singing. The title role, which unusually is one of the smaller roles, was taken by another Italian castrato, Nicolò Peretti, while the three remaining roles were taken by English singers, led by John Beard (1717-1791) in the role of Artabanes. Earlier in his career Beard had worked extensively with Handel, creating roles in ten of his operas and all of his English oratorios, and by 1762 he had also become the manager of the Covent Garden theatre; it was his decision to discontinue the practice of allowing half-price entry for the third act that 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 Italian style on which the opera was founded, Artaxerxes is very much aria-dominated, with twenty-six of the twenty-eight surviving numbers being solo arias. And yet there are significant differences, too, most notably in the relative brevity and formal variety of the arias, which nearly all eschew the ‘da capo’ form so beloved of Handel and his contemporaries. It is intriguing to note that Artaxerxes dates from the same year as Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice – that is to say, three years after Handel’s death (although twenty years since his last Italian opera) and five years before Mozart’s first opera – and in keeping with Gluck’s masterpiece Arne’s work is actually more notable for its melodic beauty and emotional directness than for its vocal pyrotechnics.
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
Modern performances of Artaxerxes have been limited by the fact that the work has not survived complete. As was customary, the full score published in 1762 had omitted all the recitatives and the finale, but the complete libretto has survived, so we do know the text of all the missing music, and even which recitatives Arne wrote with orchestral accompaniment.
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.
Arbaces is in love with Princess Mandane, on account of which he has been banished from Persia by her father, King Xerxes. The two lovers bid a tender farewell, but before Arbaces can leave the palace grounds he is accosted by his father Artabanes, the general of the King’s army, who informs him that he has just assassinated Xerxes. He gives Arbaces his bloody sword to dispose of. Artabanes then convinces Xerxes’ younger son, Artaxerxes, that his [elder] brother Darius is guilty of the crime, and before his guilt can be disproved Artabanes has Darius executed. Semira, Arbaces’ sister and Artaxerxes’ lover, arrives too late with news that Darius is innocent, and that the real assassin has been caught with the murder weapon. Everyone is astonished when Arbaces is led in under armed guard. He maintains his innocence, but when he refuses to reveal the truth he is presumed guilty.
Artabanes urges his son to escape and lead a rebellion, but Arbaces refuses. Instead, Artabanes and Rimenes, a captain in the army, plot to kill Artaxerxes themselves, with Semira offered as Rimenes’ reward. When Arbaces stands trial Artaxerxes, torn by indecision, places his 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 orders him to escape. When Artabanes and Rimenes then arrive and find the cell empty, they assume that Arbaces has already been executed, and resolve to take revenge by poisoning Artaxerxes as he takes his coronation oath. Mandane, meanwhile, is confronted by Arbaces, and struggles to resist her feelings for him.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. Horrified, Artabanes confesses to his crimes. Artaxerxes spares his life but banishes him from the kingdom, and the two couples – Arbaces and Mandane, Artaxerxes and Semira – are united.
Ian Page © 2010