Album Title: Thomas Arne: Artaxerxes
Performer: The Classical Opera Company
Label: Linn Records CDK 358 (SACD, also available as downloads)
Run time: 137 minutes
Recorded: Air Studio, 2009

Let's be honest. If you're like me—one of those few dinosaurs who enjoy opera—opportunities for a new discovery are few and far whilst chances of having to suffer through yet another butchered Figaro are to the max. So I cannot hide my glee at reviewing not just one but actually two new operas that I had never heard of before - this first one by Thomas Arne and the second one by the obscure yet always entertaining Gretry.
Linn's production of Arne's Artaxerxes by the Classical Opera Company won't take long to review. It's excellent from start to finish with amazing young singers who will entertain you for over two hours. It is great music, great singing and a great recording by Linn's engineers.

That said you probably expect a little more information so let me add that Arne is famous today for the very patriotic Rule Britannia but in his days (1710-1778) was regarded as a major opera composer whose work certainly influenced Haydn and Mozart amongst many. The reason why this work had been neglected since is that the manuscript and original materials were burnt in the fire that destroyed the Theatre Royal in 1808. The overture, arias and duets had already been published but all the recitatives and the finale were lost in the disaster. The current recording by the Classical Opera Company includes recitatives composed by their director Ian Page and a finale by musicologist and baroque violinist Duncan Druce.

What's quite interesting about Arne's Artaxerxes is that despite the use of a libretto by the star librettist of the time Metastasio, the opera is actually in English and based on a translation from the Italian later authenticated to be by Arne himself. Although I have to admit that as with many operas of that period being able to understand text and story is not always advantageous, quality operas in English from this late baroque/early classical era are uncommon. For that reason alone Artaxerxes stands apart. The Italian libretto was set by over ninety composers over the years including Gluck's first opera about 30 years prior to Arne's own. It may not be coincidence that many parts in Artaxerxes actually reminded me of Gluck's later work albeit being more focused on melody and creative use of instruments than vocal pyrotechnics.

As already mentioned the young cast is of the highest order, perfectly adapting their singing styles to the mood of the arias. The orchestra is spectacular, fully showcasing Arne's creative composition without ever eclipsing the singers. Linn's studio recording is as usual excellent, well balanced between orchestra and voices, detailed and precise without ever being aggressive. What else to say? This is likely to be one of the major new releases of 2011 when it comes to opera re-creation and fully earns my first Blue Moon of the year. Enjoy!