- Artaserse, opera
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The opera libretto "Artaserse" (Artaxerxes) by Pietro Metastasio was the hit of the 18th century opera seria. It was set more than 40 times, including once in English (by Thomas Arne), and its popularity lasted into the 19th century. The opera by Leonardo Vinci recorded here, however, was the very first one, dating from 1730. It's easy to see even at this late date why Metastasio's libretto appealed to opera composers and operagoers so much. The story, concerning the Persian king Xerxes' son Artaxerxes I (based very loosely on actual events), features royal pomp, young love, betrayal, tragic self-sacrifice, and, to top it all off, a happy ending. Musically the opera is odd by present-day standards; it called for an all-male cast, women being banned from Roman theaters at the time. The cast consisted of five castrati, sung here by countertenors, and one tenor, the villain Artabano. It's a big work, with sober processionals and spectacular arias for almost all the characters. French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky has never been in better voice, but the performance is equally notable for introducing some lesser-known countertenors, such as the creamy-voiced Valer Barna-Sabadus as Semira, Artaserse's frustrated lover. It's not until now, as a matter of fact, that a critical mass of countertenors has been available to perform music of this difficulty, and the results are worth hearing on several levels. Slowly but surely, the history of opera in the 18th century is being rewritten.