George Hall
BBC Music Magazine
March 2011

One of the biggest throws of the career of the 18th-century English theatre composer Thomas Arne (1710-78), Artaxerxes remained a success at Covent Garden and elsewhere from its premiere in 1762 up to the late 1830s. It even survived on the stage, in partially rewritten form, following the disastrous fire that ripped through the Theatre Royal in 1808, destroying its only complete score and performance materials; fortunately, by then the bulk of the opera had been published in full score, leaving just the recitatives and ensemble finale missing. Here, conductor Ian Page and musicologist Duncan Druce have filled these respective gaps, matching Arne's style so convincingly that you would never notice the joins.

Arne could be a good composer—it's with good reason that his 'Rule, Britannia!' is still popular—but he was less than a genius. Artaxerxes was his attempt to write an English-language opera modelled on Italian opera seria; Arne himself seems to have prepared the translation of the libretto by Metastasio, the leading practitioner of the genre in his day. Artaxerxes contains some good ideas amidst others that are merely generic and a few that are empty. But at its best, as in the soprano showpiece, 'The soldier tir'd' (a favourite of Victorian singers, latterly recorded by Joan Sutherland) it's very worthwhile; here in this recording that aria is resplendently delivered by Elizabeth Watts.

Artaxerxes' variable musical quality will probably prevent it from resuming a regular place in the operatic repertory, but here it is presented complete and to a consistently high standard. The very fine cast enters with spirit into the text's convoluted scenario of love and betrayal in ancient Persia and delivering the notes with assurance. Ian Page conducts the period-instrument forces with conviction, and the sound is excellent.