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The Making Of Artaserse

– By Lankin –

Artaserse – Leonardo Vinci – Nancy, 02. Nov. 2012

I’m sure you know that feeling – when you’ve seen a movie, and watch the making-of, the point of view gets tilted. All the actions, the plot, the intensity, can now be watched from an outsider’s point of view. The illusion crumbles; it’s not real, it’s just actors, playing their roles.

Why do we love making-ofs? (Well most of us do.) It must be the change of perspective, and also the promise to see the actors as human beings – to see them differently, and to see more of them than they would actually show if they stayed in character.

The most interesting bit about any making-of though is not the succession of interviews and movie scenes, but the seam in between. When does the actor allow himself to slip out of character? This boundary is the most interesting bit, at least for me. It’s about the magic that happens when an actor stops being just himself, and becomes a fictional character.

But isn’t that was music in total is about? What art is about in general? Michelangelo’s David’s worth can’t be measured in its net weight of marble either, of course. Somewhere the magic happens, and that night in Nancy we were invited to witness it, as the actors were slipping in and out of character – a lot at the beginning, less in the process of the opera.

No, it’s not for real. It’s just a show. Should that comfort us? It doesn’t, as to see Jaroussky and Cencic being dressed up and made-up long before the overture even didn’t exactly lower our heart-rate.

In “Artaserse”, the titles of the arias almost all ring a bell, be it “Per quel paterno amplesso”, “Vo solcando un mar crudele,” or “Conservati fedele.” If any ranking should be made, Metastasio is a bigger genius than Vinci was, in my humble estimate, even if the latter has his moments. Metastasio’s librettos have been set to music countless times, while Vinci somehow almost became forgotten. (I put together some links some time ago, you can read the article here.)

Yet, Vinci laid out the path for his successors; his Artaserse was the first, performed in Rome in 1730. The cast was planned to be exclusively male. Women on stage were a no-go in Catholic Rome; on the other hand, castratos, and more, castratos in drag were acceptable.

But now to the singers!

Artaserse, Prince and subsequently king of Persia, friend of Arbace and in love with Semira – Philippe Jaroussky

Artaserse, sung of course by Philippe Jaroussky, was given a hard start. At the “Deh respirar lasciatemi” he had to stumble around on the revolving platform in the centre of the stage, dishevelling his own hair, on top of that in a night shirt. A more static approach there would have made singing less tasking, and less enforced overacting would have become Jaroussky. (No complaints about the night-shirt.)

From a grief-stricken wreck – after all, Artaserse’s father has just been assasinated – he slowly evolved into a rightful king; someone who takes action, takes his own decisions and stands by them. It was an achievement for Artaserse as well as for Jaroussky.

Vinci doesn’t exactly provide Artaserse with as terrific arias as he does with Mandane or Arbace. “Rendimi il caro amico” – basically a love song, spiced up by the fact that Artaserse sings this to the face of Arbace’s father – was saved by the production. Vinci’s lines there are tough, there is no fondness, only determination. How would you have set the lines “Rendimi il caro amico, parte dell’alma mia” to music? Differently, I’m sure. Weird, I always thought, but the sovereignty and grace the production allowed PJ in it was highly becoming Vinci’s music, and Jaroussky in turn.

Funnily, Jaroussky’s splendid acting together with Fagioli in the “L’onda dal mar divisa” won the price, in my estimate, as well as his accompagnati in the end. Only then we were sure to see a true king, different from the stuffed-shirt scheming politicians around him. Well, we could tell from his voice alone way before, of course.

Only equipped with sheet music, I could have well imagined him in other roles in that piece, but now I’m happy with the cast, even if I direly miss a “Perché tarda è mai la morte” from him, as well as a “Se d’un amor tiranno.”

His voice is completely different from the ones of his fellow countertenors; he sounds more like a boy treble than the rest. Again, why Vinci didn’t yield one single showpiece to the Prince and later King of Persia is a mystery to me. Artaserse’s arias are by no means designed to be show-stoppers. They don’t have the drama, or the verve, neither does Artaserse have an aria with the potential to be turned into a heart-rendering tearjerker – something Jaroussky excels at. (Just think of “Sol da te”, “Sovvente il sole” and countless others.) Jaroussky pulled every possible string to make up for this lack that is by no means his fault. His lines and his phrasing were flawless, delicate and unique. Just as Fasolis’ conducting, he managed to get the maximum possible out of Vinci’s music.

Arbace, Friend of Artaserse, in love with Mandane – Franco Fagioli

When I prepared to go to Nancy, I had fewer time than I had wished to really prepare for the opera. I had only heard the recording once from beginning to end, but I had skimmed my way through the sheet music a couple of times. My first thought on the “Vo solcando” was: Either the composer did not like singers in total, or he was on drugs I am not tempted to try. The coloraturas seem specifically designed to tighten up the throat, there is nothing of the elegance that, e.g., Johann Christian Bach put into the vocal line in his version. Excuse me, Mr. Vinci, but the aria almost shows utter disrespect for the physical health of a singer’s instrument. Riccardo Broschi comes to mind, even if his style is a lot different.

The “Vo solcando” has the sexiness of a benchmark performance test – an almost heartless showpiece. Let’s see what a castrato voice can do, shall we? Can you hear that range, one smooth colour throughout, two octaves (a to a’’) a must, a few more notes of tessitura are welcome.

When I saw this aria staged by Silviu Purcărete, I almost laughed out loud, as it completely fit my own assessment of the aria. Fagioli was dressed up as the caricature of a baroque gentleman – frock coat, high wig, too much makeup – forced to go on center stage, physically shoved in front of the audience by the backstage crew, the latter anonymized by white makeup and uniform-like clothing.

Vinci’s “Vo solcando” doesn’t put much finesse into describing a restless sea or a sailor lost on sea, stripped of sail and rigging, lacking the skill to handle the situation which the sheer force of nature has taken from his hands. Fasolis’ spectacular conducting (and Concerto Köln’s exceptional playing, of course) almost managed to gloss over what Vinci is leaving out there. (For reference, and awesome arias picking up the shipwreck motive to symbolize inner turmoil and all shades of human feelings, turn to Vivaldi, of course. “Siam navi all’onde algenti,” and others.)

The A-part of the aria is split in two, so that gave Fagioli three occasions on which he tried to leave the stage; an unwilling circus artist, forced to perform. Back in Baroque times – and the costumes made it easy to draw that reference – to show off the singer’s weakness, which is his strength – it’s what the audience paid for. That’s us! And – we loved it, even if it left a stale taste of sorts, at least for me. Beneath the fun of that scene, there’s the tragedy. No one cares about the person Fagioli we saw before at that moment, (just as no one cared about Carestini back then) without makeup, or almost, getting ready: The audience wants the show – and they are hungry. I bet not only I bit back a “da capo!” at the applause.

It was as if the “Vo solcando” had kickstarted the singers to go to new heights. Before, their acting and performance seemed well rehearsed, interesting, but not quite outstanding, apart from some rare moments. It was as if they fought as well with getting into character; in the “Vo solcando,” it was a first that this option to skive out of the game was physically prevented.

The cadenzas, the acting, the performance in total got another class after that aria that closes Act I.

In the second act, it gets complicated. Imagine “Liaisons dangereuses,” skipping the smut, and focussing on the plot. Baroque had a faible for plot twists, and games of intrigue. Fittingly, this act was staged in Baroque costumes, so the ones whose dream it was to see the cast in frock coats were given some eye candy.

I would like to mention the person here who advised on the Baroque gestures, Nathalie van Parys. Without her, this act wouldn’t have been nearly as delightful to watch.

Arbace is Artaserse’s best friend. Not just as the term is used in the Facebook age, but – Artaserse won’t believe that Arbace is a murderer, even confronted with overwhelming evidence. One of the many highlights that night for me was the “L’onda dal mar divisa” – terrifically sung by Fagioli – where Arbace and Artaserse acted out quite stylized what they use to do in terms of friendship – all very brotherly of course, even if theirs is the true love-story of the opera. A true gem in Act three.

Now to the rest of the cast, or The Boy Group, as I would like to call them:

Mandane, Sister of Artaserse, in love with Arbace – Max Emanuel Cencic

I had a hard time really seeing women in Cencic as well as Barna-Sabadus at the start. The staging there greatly helped me, I have to say. It wasn’t necessary to buy the illusion, at least in the beginning, as they are obviously men being put in drag. However, it didn’t even matter; when it comes to counter tenors, the performance was what “Expendables” is in the action movie universe. Of course we were there for the cast, and for the production, a combination which Cencic made possible in the first place, ensuring our endless gratitude.

Cencic’s Mandane was a convincing, complex, and interesting character. The not quite perfect illusion even added another edge of true tragedy to the performance, something I find very hard to put into words.

It was as if the music and its magic were spreading. At some point no one could detach themselves any more from the action going on on stage, and this included the singers in the roles they were playing. Semira as well as Mandane chose not to skive out of their roles any more; even at the dressing table, they still stayed in character.

I know Cencic’s voice well, I thought; I heard countless recordings of him, and saw him in many roles, but I never had the chance to see him live up to now. Vocally, he most surprised me. His “Se d’un amor tiranno” justified his position as Prima Donna, if there ever should have been any doubt beforehand.

Semira, Sister of Arbace, in love with Artaserse – Valer Barna-Sabadus

The real jaw-dropper, I have to say, concerning his appearance, was Barna-Sabadus, especially regarding that almost his entire physique is in the way of him being a credible female. Nevertheless, he managed, don’t ask me how. (A close shave surely helped.) His gestures, pose, and acting in total were stupendous. His phrasing was even more careful than on CD, as if the costume and his acting helped him to make Semira even more soft, gentle, and well yes – female? Wonderful, to be able to use this as a compliment, for a change. A velvety, lush and soft voice. All who don’t yet know him, check him out.

Megabise, General of the Persian army, confindant of Artabano – Yuriy Mynenko*

(*I stick to the spelling of the Opéra de Lorraine)

He is evil, he is armed, and he is ambitious. Yet, psychologically speaking, it isn’t a sign of true power to take advantage of women – fragile women, like Semira is one (!). Mynenko sung the most unsympathetic character of the opera – at least for me – with great skill. He has a great high range, a more dramatic colour than Fagioli has at times, and was a perfect cast.

Artabano, Prefect of the royal guard, father of Arbace and Semira – Juan Sancho

Juan Sancho, the only singer differing from the CD recording, is the master of pulling an angry and mysterious face, that’s for sure. He is a tenor; a hell of a tenor, to be more specific. He made sure we all heard that, adding more graces, optional c#s and a d’’ even whenever he could. My true favourite that night weren’t his arias though, but his recitativos. I’m convinced no one else can put so much villainty and charm in an “Arbace, avvicinati!” alone. I’m glad I heard him live and will make sure to hear more of him in the future.


A side-note at the end: PJ’s king’s robes we already counted the feathers on on the CD cover were not entirely put on in the opera’s final scene; they were deliberately not buttoned up as they should be.They left a glimpse of everyday clothes, and a definitely modern belt-buckle. A tongue-in-cheek ending, breaking the illusion of the staging another time – or didn’t it?

We concluded the evening with a quick coffee to prepare for waiting at the Entrée des Artistes, to pay homage to the true king of Persia – and to us it didn’t matter which clothes he would be wearing.


Afternote: For the ones who won’t be lucky to see the production yet – don’t despair, Mezzo will broadcast the performance on 10 November 2012.

Concerto Köln

Nouvelle production 
Coréalisation Opéra national de Lorraine et Parnassus Arts Productions

Direction musicale : Diego Fasolis
Mise en scène : Silviu Purcărete
Décors, costumes, lumières : Helmut Stürmer
Lumières : Jerry Skelton
Chorégraphe conseillère en gestuelle baroque : Nathalie van Parys
Coiffes : Cécile Kretschmar

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