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4.7 out of 5 stars
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There are good reasons why you probably don't often come across productions of Leonardo Vinci's Artaserse. Written in 1730, there are the usual musical and staging questions to resolve in how to present opera from this period , but this one is even more rarely performed since it requires no less than five countertenors to sing the extravagantly arranged castrato roles of the work. And not just any five countertenors , but you really need five of the best in the world to be able to do any kind of justice to this particular work.

The arias and ariosos are not long-winded or overly ornamented, but they are demanding nonetheless and really require virtuoso control. Each role moreover clearly has been composed for a specific type of countertenor voice. It can be difficult to distinguish who is who with all the outlandish costume changes, wigs and face-paint - to say nothing of the difficulty of determining role gender - but every single countertenor voice here has their own unique sound and character, and each are outstanding within the role they play. Arbace has arguably the most traumatic dilemma, consumed with guilt over the death of Serse and unjustly accused of murder himself, Franco Fagioli is outstanding in how he plays out this inner turmoil. It's Philippe Jaroussky as Artaserse however who has to balance the sense of friendship and fairness in dealing out justice with the shock of his father's violent death, knowing that much lies in the balance.

The romantic complications of Semira and her conflicted sentiments would seem less important, but Valer Barna-Sabadus' astonishing delivery will convince you otherwise. This is where the real quality of Metastasio's libretto shows, giving each characters the opportunity to express their sentiments in such a way that the listener is swayed between them and sympathetic to their plight. If you've the right singer in those parts, the effect is even more pronounced, and that's the case here with Max Emanuel Cencic's Mandane, with Yuriy Mynenko's Megabise and even with Juan Sancho's Artebano. The music is exquisite - and it's marvellously played here Diego Fasolis conducting the Concerto Köln from harpsichord - but perhaps not so much that it stands out from other settings of the work or indeed other opera seria works like it. What makes Vinci's version extraordinary is indeed its setting for five countertenors. That is what is so impressive about it, and when it has singers of sufficient calibre, it raises the work to another level entirely.

The direction by Silviu Purcărete plays on what is undoubtedly the unique selling point of this version of Artaserse as being possibly the greatest showcase for the divas of early opera, the castrato. With its extravagant costumes and five lighted theatre make-up mirrors placed to the sides of the stage, there's a lot of preening and posing on the part of all the leads, but there's more to this than just showmanship. It's always a challenge to make a Baroque opera lively and visually engaging, and this one does it by representing its extravagance and its heightened theatrical qualities. Naturalism is not an important factor here. The theatricality of the staging is emphasised by the manner in which this performance is recorded. Aside from the dressing-room mirrors at the side of the stage, the camera occasionally follows character exits backstage, or shows them preparing for their entrance, adjusting costumes behind screens that are being wheeled across the stage by stage-hands. Some might find this distracting, but visually and conceptually it holds attention, and that's what is important.

In the absence of a Blu-ray release, the Erato DVD presents the work relatively well if all you are interested in are the basics of the performance. In terms of technical specifications however it's well below the standard of what is more commonly offered for opera on Blu-ray releases. The image quality is clear and stable, perfectly fine for Standard Definition with the performance spread across 2xDVD-9 discs. The audio mixes are LPCM Stereo and Dolby Digital 5.1 in 48kHz/16-bit, the sound clear and bright with natural stage echo preferred over pristine clarity. The DVD is region-free, the subtitles English, French, German and Italian. And that's about the best you can say about this release. There are no extra features, there's no booklet, there's no synopsis -nothing. For such a rare work as this, staged so well and unlikely to be revisited anytime soon, that's very disappointing.
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on 1 May 2014
Here is a 'new' great Baroque opera, not at all like Handel or Vivaldi - Leonardo Vinci has entirely his own voice. We are treated to a performance which has not been altered in 'expert' hands to suit modern tastes. The sets and costumes are exceptionally intelligent, representing musical and scenic unity. The setting is simple, a platform, painted backdrops and five dressing-room mirrors at the side of the stage. The camera catches both the front-stage drama as well as the back-stage activities. The costumes are those of 18th-century nobility, blonde wigs and lots of 'white-face' make-up, so the intention is clearly to give a semblance of the opera in its time.

The story is set in Ancient Persia. The prefect of the Royal Guard, Artabano, desiring power, stabs king Serse to death and attempts to put the blame on Serse's son Dario, who is quickly executed by order of Serse's eldest son and successor Artaserse. However, his daughter Semira declares that Dario is not the murderer, so Artabano gives the bloody murder weapon to his son Arbace swearing him to secrecy. Arbace is discovered and exposed as the murderer to the chock of his friend Artaserse and Mandane, his fiancée and Artaserse's sister. Arbace nobly keeps his oath even to the moment of his execution when his father relents and confesses, yet Arbace forgives him and begs that his life be spared to which Artaserse agrees.

It's an all-male cast opera. Countertenors are cast in shirt roles to play the female characters in the opera. The entire cast produces exceptionally fine singing. Philippe Jaroussky's clear, pure voice is consistently focused and well supported and every line gloriously phrased. Max Emanuel Cencic has the range to bash out Mandane's highest notes, and is supremely talented at getting around fast coloratura passages but I admired more the reflective lyrical arias. Franco Fagioli has a rich, agile voice, secure over an astonishingly large range, and the technical assurance of his coloratura is spectacular. Valer Barna-Sabadus's singing is well controlled and consistent throughout his range. Yuriy Mynenko is not far behind. The tenor Juan Sancho brings treasonous Artabano vividly to life. Diego Fasolis ensures that the pacing of the drama is spot on.

This wonderful, traditional staging of Artaserse is one of the landmarks in the revival of Italian Baroque opera. It ought to have been released on Blu-ray, since the high definition format allows the opera to be appreciated by a much wider public. Strongly recommended.
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on 14 April 2014
This little-known (to me) opera was a revelation, both in terms of the quality of the music and the performances which, with the possible exception of the one tenor role (all the women are played by men) was exceptional. ...I would particularly single out the aria that closes act one. I also loved the costumes and the staging that perfectly capture the spirit of the piece.
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on 28 February 2014
Nowadays HIP baroque operas take on new height after new height.
This French production featuring in title role French counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky, with Max Emanuel Cencic in 'skirt role' as Artaserse's sister, new CT stars Valer Barna-Sabadus and Franco Fagioli are a 'must see' item, having previously been issued in CD format to great acclaim.
I will focus on the visual aspect of this performance since this is a DVD release.
The sets and costumes are fabulous to begin with, they are a mixture of rococo and baroque, and the protagonists take on the style well.
The most eye-catching performances come from the pair of Fagioli's Arbace and Cencic's Mandane.
The other skirt role Semira is undertaken by soprano CT Barna-Sabadus, another young up-coming star. He, however, is slightly taller and hence not as 'faminine' in appearance as Cencic.
So actually this Artaserse production has 'two sets' of CT stars - the reigning Jaroussky/Cencic pair and the up-coming Fagioli/Barna-Sabadus pair. Each pair as as good as the other, so this is first rate singing contest non-stop, but the pair of Arbace/Mandane really has more drama, so it is more eye/ear catching.
The lone tenor did a passable but not illustrious job as Arbace's father, the murderer of Artaserse's father (Serse).
The Concerto Köln, one of the longer-serving period bands, benefited from Diego Fasolis' almost dance-like approach to conducting (partly) from the harpsichord.
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on 6 April 2014
Great singing very good music. Although it's an all male cast the difference in the voices is sufficient for the characterisation and what voices!
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on 19 April 2014
The singing, the singers, the costumes, etc. Everything is a pleasure to watch and listen. Highly recommended if you love opera
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on 1 May 2014
Beautiful music performed by Leonardo Vinci's six top singers and an excellent orchestra, masterfully done work, congratulations.I recommend to all lovers of classical music
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on 1 June 2014
I bought this based on a clip I had seen on Youtube. It's a joy to watch - fantastic costumes, staging, the orchestra is excellent and the singing sublime.
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on 3 March 2016
This opera because of its number of counter-tenors is rarely performed so it was a treat to see this recording. The singing is fantastic especially by by Phillippe Jarowsky who sung the lead role, Artaserse. There are some wonderful arias in this baroque opera that are sung beautifully by the counter-tenors. When I got used to to the switch of cameras between the one on stage and those in the dressing room, orchestra, and scene change I could enjoy what was important. However,I thought that the costumes were over-the-top. But,this opera because of the fine singing and acting skills by its performers definitely merits five stars.
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on 23 August 2014
Brilliant DVD. So camp. Such exquisite singing and production. A real one off and a must for all counter tenor devotees.
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