on 23 December 2012
This rare "Dramma per musica", in other words opera, is admirable in many ways, and it should deserve a long commentary if not a study in depth. I am only going to make a few remarks. I will keep the fact that this recording is an all-male recording for the end.
Note the action takes place in Persia, hence everything is possible since they have very cruel gods over there. We must be surprised by nothing. Let's first look at the plot. The king of Persia, Serse, is assassinated by Artabano, the commanding officer of the royal guard. This Artabano is plotting the end of this dynasty, along with the main general of the army, Megabise. Artabano then tells Serse's son, Artaserse, that the culprit is his brother Dario. Artaserse orders him to capture Dario and put him to death, which is done very diligently. Artabano's plot is in fact to kill Artaserse too but within a military putsch that will bring his own son, Arbace, to the throne as the liberator of the people and the country. Thus after killing Serse, he had given the bloody sword to his son and told him what he had just done, which deeply perturbed the son. Artabano thinks that his son is going to play the game because he was banned from the palace by Serse because he had dared ask for Mandane's hands, Artaserse's sister, Serse's own daughter. To understand the situation we need to add at this moment that Arbace has a sister, Semira, who is deeply in love with Artaserse and Artaserse is in love with Semira too. But Artabano has negotiated Semira's marriage with Megabise to get the general's support in his plot. Finally Artaserse and Arbace are friends and their friendship is probably more love than just simple friendship, if there is a difference between the two.
At this point then, the opera is setting one against the other two love relations between four men. Artabano and his son Arbace, filial and fatherly love on one hand. This love implies that the son will never speak against his father and that the father will do anything he can to serve his son, even if the son does not agree or approve. On the other hand the love between the two friends Artaserse and Arbace and that love will lead Artaserse to trying all he can to save his accused friend Arbace who was found in the palace garden with the bloody sword that killed Serse and in a state of total derangement. Artaserse appears here as a childlike character who makes all types of mistakes because he reacts like a child, without thinking. He is reactive and in no way mental. He orders the death of his brother without wondering why his brother would have killed their father. He then orders Artabano to be the judge of his own son, thinking the father would show some clemency or leniency in, judging and sentencing his own son. Later on he will order the death of Arbace on one piece of information, Arbace's leading the rebellion, just before it is revealed to him that Arbace has just brought the mutinous army down and killed Megabise. Finally he will order the death of Artabano when Artabano confesses the plot and his guilt, and it will take a lot of energy on Arbace's side to convince him to be clement. It is useless to insist on the fact that the childlike clear voice of Philippe Jaroussky fits perfectly in that childish personality.
But the love between Artaserse and Arbace is so deep that we wonder at times if it is not more than love or friendship and we feel at times the relation that should exist between the prince, and then king, and the son of the commander of his royal guard is not inverted. It clearly seems so when we consider the two voices. Franco Fagioli has a deeper voice than Philippe Jaroussky and the music emphasizes this contrast so that at the end, when Arbace convinces Artaserse to be clement Arbace sounds like the man who is sound and able to make sound decisions whereas Artaserse sounds like the child, teenager or young man who is just able to understand and accept what Arbace tells him. The dominant character is Arbace. So that is more than love or friendship. That is a relation of political and mental dominance, developed and accepted by both men. Arbace becomes Artaserse's counsellor but founded on a deep loving relation between the two men which enables the King to follow his friend's advice, or rather decisions. This is all the more true when at the beginning of the third act Artaserse helps, and in fact orders, Arbace to escape before he be executed, what's more by his own father. It is this act that will enable the end and the defeat of the rebellion.
Then we can wonder at this point why Artabano is the only tenor among the men, all the others being countertenors. The question is particularly important since the opera was created in 1730 in Rome. The tenor here is two things: first a father who is suffering tremendously when his own plot sets his own son in a tremendous danger and when he sees that the failure of the plot might get his son in even greater danger. He has the deeper voice of a tenor and that fits with his being a father, and what's more a commanding father, if we can say so, that commands his son around and commands such a level of filial love in his son that Arbace will accept to play the game and remain silent when he finally knows the plot and his father's crime, even when he is accused of this very crime. He commands such a level of authority with his daughter Semira that she accepts to marry Megabise though she clearly says she will never love him and Megabise clearly says that what is important for him is to possess the body named Semira and in no way her love. This vision of love as a pure sexual commodity is nearly shocking for a modern audience, though the worse side is Semira's submission to her father's decision that turns her into a sexual sellable valuable and nothing else. And he commands such authority over Megabise that this latter one accepts to support the plot just with Semira as the prize of the venture. Yet in the last act Megabise becomes quite pressing as for the plot because Artabano is wavering because of the situation of his own son who has escaped his jail and is announced as being dead, which determines in him a new motivation that is limited since it is to kill Artaserse, the king, before he can kill himself in expiation of his son's death. That love between a father and a son is explored in such detail and poignancy that we can consider this element as one of the two major themes of the opera.
The second is the love between Artaserse and Arbace as we have seen. We could wonder which one is first and which one is second. But the question is flawed. The two loving relations and the conflict between these two loving relations are the heart and core of the opera. And there again the contrast between Artabano, a tenor, and his son Arbace, a slightly deep countertenor, is perfect both to set the father in his dominant position of authority and to set the son in a challenging position that is as submissive as necessary and possible, and yet represents the man who is going to fail the plot and kill the main associate of his father. That voice needs to be a countertenor with enough depth to convey this challenging role. And at the end when Arbace pleads for clemency in the name of his father with Artaserse the contrast of this slightly deeper voice is perfect with the rather childlike voice of Artaserse. Note that all along the opera when Arbace was expressing his despair of being entangled and imprisoned in a plot he disagreed with and rejected though he had to accept it and support it since it was coming from his father Franco Fagioli had a vibrating voice that fitting perfectly that dilemma.
We should add one more situation having to do with this tenor voice. Artabano is the one who is going to assist Artaserse in his oath as a king that ends with drinking a cup of wine. He has poisoned that cup. Artaserse is saved by the announcement of the rebellion outside. Later when Arbace arrives he is going to swear his innocence to the Gods with the same cup of wine as the sealing ritual, hence drinking the wine poisoned by his own father. That's the element that will trigger Artabano's confession to save his son. You can see the strategic position of this tenor voice in the first oath ritual, the dark voice of the plotting killer, and then the same strategic position of the tenor voice interrupting the two countertenors and his own son in that second oath ritual to save his son and confess his crime. That's dark indeed and this confession does not bring any light into the picture of this damned soul. When all that is understood we can understand the place of the tenor in such a very dark and yet central position by the fact that we are a long time before Beethoven's redefinition of the tenor as the heroic voice of the opera with Fidelio, a new definition that will triumph in Italy and Germany with Italian operas by Rossini, Verdi and a few others and with Wagner and later Richard Strauss.
But then we can wonder about the presence of the two women. They are indispensible to make the opera acceptable in the 18th century. Semira is only some exchangeable goods for her father and his co-plotter. But she is also the one Artaserse loves. Mandane is the one Arbace loves. Are these two loves negligible? That would be a mistake to believe so.
These two loves are present at the very beginning of the opera but as soon as Serse's death is announced things change very fast and Arbace disappears to be brought back on the stage as the accused killer. Then Mandane becomes a fury asking for immediate vengeance without a trial if possible, and when Arbace is sentenced to death by his own father Semira becomes a second fury demanding the recognition of her brother's innocence without any proof, just on the basis of logic and respect, on the basis of her own certainty. The confrontation of the two in the third act is such a show of total sectarianism that we wonder if these women were ever in love. They declare their mutual hatred. Mandane sings, in tears for her lost love:
I cannot bear
Such hatred, such fury,
From your enraged heart."
And Semira sings in her turn, probably in tears herself though maybe with some diatance:
"Madwoman, what have you done? I thought
By expressing my fears I might
Lessen them, but I have only increased them.
I thought I could soothe my heart
By offending Mandane
But I have pierced her heart without healing mine.
It is not true that our own troubles
Are lightened when we see
For the sight of sorrow
Only prompts us
To further sighing."
And yet the only duet of the whole opera will be just one scene later the conclusion of the confrontation of Mandane and Arbace before Arbace leaves the palace as Artaserse has ordered him to do. But the structure is complex since we have first Arbace (3 lines), then Mandane (three lines), six short exchanges between them and finally the real duet in two parts (two lines + three lines), and then a coda of the whole section all over again. It is interesting to see the despair of Arbace and the inflexibility of Mandane at this crucial moment before Arbace's departure that will enable him to defeat the rebellion and kill Megabise.
You want me to live, my beloved,
But if you deny me your love
You will cause my death.
Oh God, what bitter sorrow!
My blushes should be enough for you;
I cannot say more.
Listen to me ...
You are ...
Out of my sight ...
My love ...
Leave me, for pity's sake.
When will your cruelty end?
If through such great sorrow
I do not die of grief,
What is the anguish that can kill?"
I don't think I have to explain the extreme ambiguity of the final duet since they both sing the same thing and for each one of them it has a completely different meaning.
The two women do not close the opera. The end is the final and long exchange between Artaserse and Arbace about the necessity and beauty of clemency that exiles Artabano and this exile saves his life. The love for the women is not even, alluded to, the possible marriages are not an issue then. Then we can conclude the two women were there only to prop up, emphasize and amplify the two loving relations between Artaserse and Arbace on one hand and Arbace and Artabano on the other hand, the former by setting Mandane on Artaserse's side and Semira on Arbace's side, and the latter by setting Semira on Arbace's side as Artabano's daughter..
Then we can easily see that the choice of having two countertenors instead of two sopranos is quite justified since it gets the sexual element out of the picture since after all this sexual aspect is absolutely minor and secondary. Even in the voices the feminine presence is eliminated. Then the various one-on-one of these two women with male characters are not sexual but purely abstract, mental, political, or ethical. No love is wasted in that opera at all, no love whatsoever, meaning of course love between a man and a woman and a possible marriage and sexual encounter. The only marriage that is envisaged ends up with Arbace killing Megabise, and even so that marriage of Meagbise and Semira was certainly not a love affair.
Some may say that gives a gay dimension to this opera and they will be wrong since at no time is there any mention of such a gay sexual encounter between Artaserse and Arbace. We will of course consider the relation between Arbace and Artabano has nothing incestuous in it. In fact we are dealing with a society in which men have the upper hand in all matters and women are nothing but an everyday commodity that has to be in conformity and agreement with everyday demands and requirements. So if they are a commodity in society they cannot be in anyway put forward. They maybe should be sent back to the harem or the gynaecium.
And what about the music?
Rich recitatives and very powerful arias and one admirable duet. These arias express a tremendous palette of emotions, feelings, passions, mental states, etc. It is in line with the best music of the 18th century though I would say it does not have the brilliance of Handel nor the virtuosity of Vivaldi but it is quite pleasant and engaging for a drama that is absolutely bleak though it ends in the best Mozartian way though without the love that Mozart was so keen on singing and expressing everywhere and all the time, I mean the sexual love between men and women. The main asset of this opera is definitely the phenomenal use of countertenors who must have been countertenors and castrati at the time of creation.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU