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Briefly Noted: Hasse's 'Artaserse'

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J.A. Hasse, Artaserse, A. Giustiniani, F. Fagioli, Ensemble Barocco dell'Orchestra Internationale d'Italia, C. Rovaris

(released on February 26, 2016)
Dynamic CDS7715/1-3 | 178'17"

available at Amazon
[DVD version]
Persian history figures in a number of early operas, including Metastasio's Artaserse. This libretto about the son of Xerxes was set to music twice in 1730 by Leonardo Vinci (in Rome, where all the roles had to be sung by men) and Johann Adolf Hasse, as well as in countless other versions, including one by Domènec Terradellas. Artaxerxes was a younger son of Xerxes, who took the throne after a powerful court official named Artabanus murdered his father and older brother. (Ancient historians vary; Metastasio follows the version in which Artabanus murders Xerxes and blames the king's older son, Darius, so that Artaxerxes is forced to execute him.) The rest of the opera's story is an invented pairing of love interests, with Artaserse enamored of Semira, the sister of his best friend, Arbace, and Arbace in love with Artaserse's sister, Mandane. In this version, Arbace is the son of Artabano, who murders the king because he opposes his son's marriage to Mandane, and the suspicion that falls on Arbace, because he exchanges swords with his father after the murder, prevents the two marriages from going forward until the expected Metastasian lieto fine.

In this first recording of the entire opera, Corrado Rovaris conducts Hasse's original score, made for the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice in 1730, rather than the remix he made for Naples thirty years later. The edition is by Marco Beghelli, a professor at the Università di Bologna, assisted by Raffaele Mellace from the University of Genoa, and it was recorded live in the Palazzo Ducale of the town of Martina Franca, during the Festival della Valle d'Itria in the summer of 2012. Superstar castrato Carlo Broschi, known as "Farinelli," created the role of Arbace, and its pyrotechnical arias (like Act III's Parto qual pastorello) were some of his most celebrated hits. He underwent the surgical alteration that preserved his treble voice at the age of twelve, in the wake of the sudden death of his father, who was maestro di cappella of the cathedral of his hometown, Andria. Countertenor Franco Fagioli stands in for that legendary voice, with an impressive sound across the role's large ambitus, going shrill just at the very top but rock-solid at the bottom, and with thrilling agility in the runs.

Mezzo-soprano Sonia Prina takes on the role of Artabano, created by alto castrato Nicolo Grimaldi ("Nicolini"), who was often cast with the much younger Farinelli around this time. She sounds a little breathless but nails the melismas, with a gorgeous legato sound in the showpiece Pallido il sole at the conclusion of the second act. Maria Grazia Schiavo has a fine turn as Mandane, the role created by soprano Francesca Cuzzoni, matched by mezzo-soprano Rosa Bove as Semira. Tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani is an effective Artaserse, and a third countertenor, Antonio Giovannini, makes the best of the small role of Megabyzus, a real Persian general at this time. The drawbacks of live recording are worse than normal in this case, with weirdly scattered, not always enthusiastic applause interrupting far too often, as well as some sporadic cheering, which is even more annoying. For that reason as well as its lower price, the DVD version of this performance (not reviewed) may be the better deal.

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