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Unique work, stunning performance, but disappointing DVD-only release
on 23 May 2014
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.