The short life of the Neapolitan composer Leonardo Vinci reads like an opera plot, full of triumphs and intrigues and culminating in death via a cup of poisoned chocolate. Yet the “Lully of Italy” blazed brightly, renowned in his day for his melodic style and natural expression. Artaserse, presented in Rome in 1730 a mere three months before the composer’s sticky end (pardon the pun), was his crowning glory, typical of his gift for vivacity unburdened by weighty matters of musical structure.
The libretto, by the great Pietro Metastasio, is a tale of murder, betrayal, love and honour at the Persian court and is representative of his lofty yet accessible approach. As this was the age of the castrati and women were forbidden on the Roman stage, all six of the characters, including the two female roles, were played by men. Cue this historical reenactment with five of the best countertenors around ready to do battle with Vinci’s challenging tessituras and florid vocal lines.
I’m happy to report that there isn’t a duff singer to be found on this recording. The two star names, Philippe Jaroussky as King Artaserse and Max Emanuel Cencic as his sister Mandane, are class acts, the latter putting in a most feisty performance as the firebrand princess whose lover, Arbace, is believed to have killed her father. Franco Fagioli is magnificent as the hapless Arbace, framed by his own father for the murder of the former king. His is a ravishing voice with creamy legato and pinpoint articulation adorning many of the finest arias. Valer Barna-Sabadus as his sister Semira tempers his tone well to add verisimilitude to his feminine portrayal, while Yuriy Mynenko is characterful as the conspiring General Megabise. The only weakness lies in the impossibility of telling men from women without a libretto when everyone’s a countertenor! Daniel Behle, the only true “male” range in the cast, provides welcome relief as the villainous Artabano, singing with considerable panache.
Personally, I could have managed with less of Metastasio’s recitative, classy though it undoubtedly is for the time. Nevertheless, it is handled with imagination, even though the slightly flatulent Baroque bassoon used in the continuo to represent Artabano elicits the odd inadvertent laugh. Diego Fasolis and Concerto Köln provide rip-roaring support, all period guns blazing, and if Vinci’s oeuvre is occasionally over the top (timpani, trumpets and horns), it’s nevertheless a great deal of fun.