VINCE: Artaserse
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VINCI: Artaserse

spacer Jaroussky, Fagioli, Cencic, Barna-Sabadus, Mynenko, Sancho; Concerto Köln, Fasolis. Production: Purcarete. Erato 46323234 (2 discs), 201 mins, subtitled

ArtaserseDVD

In an opera featuring five countertenors, two of them in female roles, we don’t need many reminders of artificiality, yet Silviu Purcarete’s production of Vinci’s Artaserse for Opéra National de Lorraine is a study in theatrical artifice, from backstage preening before the overture to showers of golden glitter during the curtain calls. 

The cast is first seen hanging around in T-shirts and bathrobes, already in severe white and rouged makeup, sipping water and waving at the camera. During the overture they eventually make their way into a line downstage before proceeding into costume and wigs. Throughout the evening, stagehands, their modern black clothing and headsets a jarring contrast with the cast’s elaborate period costumes, intrude and encourage, whether moving people into position or forcing a reluctant singer into a wig to begin the B section of his aria. 

Helmut Stürmer’s set consists of a square playing area with overused turntable. On either side, dressing tables with makeup lights and mirrors provide resting spots for tiring or thirsty singers. Gestures and stage positions emphasize the formulaic nature of Baroque opera, while costumes, also by Stürmer, are changed often and wigs come on and off randomly. Lace and feathers adorn everything, from elegant white silk waistcoats and high white wigs to sparkly black Star Wars getups. Artaserse appears for his coronation in a huge black-feathered headpiece, split white dress with giant wooly shoulderpads over black cigarette pants, and sparkly gold makeup with matching headband. Black lipstick makes everyone’s teeth look filthy.

It’s a big spectacle, poking fun at the style while paying it due homage, with singing to match. All six singers (one is a tenor) know their way around a showy cadenza, and Diego Fasolis leads Concerto Köln with stylistic sureness and verve. Recitatives are milked for their theatricality, and most of the ornamentation actually sounds improvised. In what sometimes seems a free-for-all competition for highest note, fastest run and loudest singing, a few singers also understand the power of a soft and delicate adagio aria. Max Emanuel Cencic in particular handles the slow music of Mandane, sister of Artaserse, with feeling and artistry, and his clear sound is refreshing, but his phrasing is often crude, with clumsy attacks. Franco Fa­gioli takes a showman’s approach to both virtuoso and meditative arias in the role of Arbace. His top range is impressive at all volumes (although inserting gratuitous high notes into simple recitatives shows questionable taste) and fioritura is dispatched easily. His pressed and curdled sound, however, tires the ear and renders text incomprehensible. 

As the Persian general Megabise, Yuriy Mynenko prioritizes volume and high notes, leaving aside tuning and taste, but he is a fine actor. Valer Barna-Sabadus is touching as Samira, the confused and suffering sister of Arbace, and his high-lying voice sounds best in graceful music. Juan Sancho plays the villain Artabano with gleeful nastiness, and, in spite of some ill-judged high notes and throaty cadenzas, his bright tenor is a welcome relief from the constant treble sound. 

With four countertenors modeling a similar dark and vibrato-laden vocal color, Philippe Jaroussky’s sweet, unforced tone is refreshing. In the title role, his finesse and taste mark Jaroussky as the most musical and least artificial of the cast, and he stands as a stylistically confident and dramatically connected centerpiece in this Baroque fantasy-extravaganza. spacer 

JUDITH MALAFRONTE

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