Artaxerxes (opera)

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Artaxerxes is an opera in three acts composed by Thomas Arne set to an English adaptation (probably by Arne himself) of Metastasio's 1729 libretto Artaserse . [1] The first English opera seria , Artaxerxes premiered on 2 February 1762 at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden and continued to be regularly performed until the late 1830s. Its plot is loosely based on the historical figure, Artaxerxes I of Persia who succeeded his father Xerxes I after his assassination by Artabanus.

Opera artform combining sung text and musical score in a theatrical setting

Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theater. Such a "work" is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist and incorporates a number of the performing arts, such as acting, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance or ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which since the early 19th century has been led by a conductor.

Thomas Arne British composer

Thomas Augustine Arne was an English composer. He is best known for his patriotic song Rule Britannia, a version of God Save the King, which became the British national anthem, and the song A-Hunting We Will Go. Arne was a leading British theatre composer of the 18th century, working at Drury Lane and Covent Garden.

Libretto text used for an extended musical work

A libretto is the text used in, or intended for, an extended musical work such as an opera, operetta, masque, oratorio, cantata or musical. The term libretto is also sometimes used to refer to the text of major liturgical works, such as the Mass, requiem and sacred cantata, or the story line of a ballet.


Performance history

The opening night of Artaxerxes (2 February 1762) at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden proved very successful. The work was revived at the theatre the following year, although this second run was marred by a riot. [2] On 24 February 1763 a mob protesting the abolition of half-price admissions stormed the theatre in the middle of the performance. According to a contemporary account in The Gentleman's Magazine :

Royal Opera House opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London

The Royal Opera House (ROH) is an opera house and major performing arts venue in Covent Garden, central London. The large building is often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", after a previous use of the site of the opera house's original construction in 1732. It is the home of The Royal Opera, The Royal Ballet, and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Originally called the Theatre Royal, it served primarily as a playhouse for the first hundred years of its history. In 1734, the first ballet was presented. A year later, Handel's first season of operas began. Many of his operas and oratorios were specifically written for Covent Garden and had their premieres there.

<i>The Gentlemans Magazine</i> London periodical

The Gentleman's Magazine was founded in London, England, by Edward Cave in January 1731. It ran uninterrupted for almost 200 years, until 1922. It was the first to use the term magazine for a periodical. Samuel Johnson's first regular employment as a writer was with The Gentleman's Magazine.

Riot over the abolition of half price admission fees at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden during a 1763 performance of Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes riots.jpg
Riot over the abolition of half price admission fees at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden during a 1763 performance of Artaxerxes.

The mischief done was the greatest ever known on any occasion of the like kind: all the benches of the boxes and pit being entirely tore up, the glasses and chandeliers broken, and the linings of the boxes cut to pieces. The rashness of the rioters was so great, that they cut away the wooden pillars between the boxes, so if the inside of them had not been iron, they would have brought down the galleries upon their heads. [3]

By 1790, Artaxerxes had received well over 100 performances, including 48 in Dublin alone between 1765 and 1767. [4] In the United States, the overture was played in Philadelphia as early as 1765, while arias from the opera were heard in New York City in 1767. [5] The US premiere of the complete opera came on 31 January 1828 at the Park Theatre in New York City with a cast that included Elizabeth Austin as Semira. [6] Artaxerxes remained in the London repertoire for over 70 years with regular revivals including those at the Drury Lane Theatre (1780, 1820, 1827, and 1828), Covent Garden (1813, 1827, and 1828), and the St James's Theatre (1836). The score for Artaxerxes had been published in 1762. However, it did not contain the recitatives or the final chorus. The original performing version of the score was lost in the fire that destroyed the Theatre Royal in 1808. After that date, performances of the work used a shortened version reconstructed by Henry Bishop and John Addison in 1813. [7]

Philadelphia Largest city in Pennsylvania, United States

Philadelphia, sometimes known colloquially as Philly, is the largest city in the U.S. state and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the sixth-most populous U.S. city, with a 2017 census-estimated population of 1,580,863. Since 1854, the city has been coterminous with Philadelphia County, the most populous county in Pennsylvania and the urban core of the eighth-largest U.S. metropolitan statistical area, with over 6 million residents as of 2017. Philadelphia is also the economic and cultural anchor of the greater Delaware Valley, located along the lower Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers, within the Northeast megalopolis. The Delaware Valley's population of 7.2 million ranks it as the eighth-largest combined statistical area in the United States.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States and thus also in the state of New York. With an estimated 2017 population of 8,622,698 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 20,320,876 people in its 2017 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 23,876,155 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

Theatre Royal, Drury Lane West End theatre building in Covent Garden, London, England

The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, commonly known as Drury Lane, is a West End theatre and Grade I listed building in Covent Garden, London, England. The building faces Catherine Street and backs onto Drury Lane. The building is the most recent in a line of four theatres which were built at the same location, the earliest of which dated back to 1663, making it the oldest theatre site in London still in use. According to the author Peter Thomson, for its first two centuries, Drury Lane could "reasonably have claimed to be London's leading theatre". For most of that time, it was one of a handful of patent theatres, granted monopoly rights to the production of "legitimate" drama in London.

Notable modern revivals of the work include a 1962 performance in London's St. Pancras Town Hall as part of the St. Pancras Festival, a BBC concert performance in 1979, and another concert performance in 2002 by the Classical Opera Company conducted by Ian Page at St John's, Smith Square. [8] To mark Thomas Arne's 300th birthday, a fully staged production of Artaxerxes was performed in October 2009 in the Linbury Theatre of London's Royal Opera House. The production was directed by Martin Duncan and designed by Johan Engels using a new performing edition of the score by Ian Page with a reconstruction of the final chorus by Duncan Druce. The cast included Christopher Ainsley as Artaxerxes, Rebecca Bottone, Caitlin Hulcup and Elizabeth Watts. [9]

Camden Festival was an annual spring festival founded in 1954 and held in London, England. Originally, it was named the St Pancras Festival until 1965. It continued until 1987.

St Johns, Smith Square Church in London

St John's Smith Square is a redundant church in the centre of Smith Square, Westminster, London. Sold to a charitable trust as a ruin following firebombing in the Second World War, it was restored as a concert hall.

Roles and casting

Elizabeth Vestris en travesti as Artaxerxes in 1827 Vestris as Artaxerxes.jpg
Elizabeth Vestris en travesti as Artaxerxes in 1827

Artaxerxes was composed when the castrato singers were at their height. The title role (Artaxerxes) and that of Arbaces were written for the Italian castrati, Nicolò Peretti and Giusto Fernando Tenducci respectively. With the waning of the castrati, the title role was sung by women en travesti in the 19th century. In the 1827 and 1828 performances in London, Artaxerxes was sung by the contraltos Eliza Paton and Elizabeth Vestris. In modern performances the role is often taken by a counter-tenor. The more virtuosic role of Arbaces went through a considerable amount of casting instability in the 19th century. [10] It was sometimes sung by sopranos, and at other times transposed for tenors such as John Braham who sang the role 1827. Considered too high for a modern counter-tenor, Arbaces was sung by a mezzo-soprano, Patrica Spence, in the 1995 Hyperion recording. [11] The role was also sung by a mezzo-soprano in the 2009 Royal Opera House revival. [12]

A castrato is a type of classical male singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto. The voice is produced by castration of the singer before puberty, or it occurs in one who, due to an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity.

Giusto Fernando Tenducci Italian castrato opera singer and compose in Britain

Giusto Fernando Tenducci, sometimes called "il Senesino", was a soprano (castrato) opera singer and composer, who passed his career partly in Italy but chiefly in Britain.

Lucia Elizabeth Vestris British actress and theatre manager

Lucia Elizabeth Vestris was an English actress and a contralto opera singer, appearing in works by, among others, Mozart and Rossini. While popular in her time, she was more notable as a theatre producer and manager. After accumulating a fortune from her performances, she leased the Olympic Theatre in London and produced a series of burlesques and extravaganzas, especially popular works by James Planché, for which the house became famous. She also produced his work at other theatres she managed.

Character nameIdentificationVoice typePerformer at 1762 premiere
ArtaxerxesXerxes' younger son; Arbaces' friend alto castrato Nicolò Peretti [13]
MandaneXerxes' daughter; lover of Arbaces soprano Charlotte Brent
Artabanesgeneral of Xerxes' army tenor John Beard
Arbacesson of Artabanessoprano castrato Giusto Fernando Tenducci
SemiraArtabanes' daughter; lover of ArtaxerxessopranoMiss Thomas
RimenesArtabanes' captaintenor George Mattocks


Mary Ann Paton as Mandane (1827) Mary Ann Paton as Mandane in Thomas Arne's 1762 opera "Artaxerxes".jpg
Mary Ann Paton as Mandane (1827)
Setting: Persia c. 465 BC

The opera opens in a moonlit garden of Xerxes' palace. Mandane, the daughter of King Xerxes, and Arbaces, the son of the King's general Artabanes, are in love. Xerxes has opposed their marriage and banished Arbaces from the palace. Arbaces climbs the wall into the garden. As the young lovers express their love for each other and their despair at Arbaces' banishment, Artabanes arrives carrying a bloody sword. His fury at Xerxes' treatment of his son and his desire for Arbaces to become King have led him to assassinate Xerxes. Artabanes confesses the murder to Arbaces and exchanges his bloody sword for that of Arbaces.

Artaxerxes, the King's younger son, arrives with his guards. Artabanes tells him of his father's death and accuses Artaxerxes's older brother Darius of the murder, "Who but he at dead of night could penetrate The palace? Who could approach the royal bed? Nay, more, his royal ambition..." Artaxerxes commands Artabanes to avenge his father's death by killing Darius. Later in the garden, Artaxerxes expresses his love to Semira, the daughter of Artabanes and sister of Arbaces.

In the King's palace, the execution of Darius is announced. However, Rimenes (also in love with Semira) has Arbaces led into the chamber in chains, announcing that the bloody sword used to kill Xerxes had been found in his possession. Arbaces is now condemned to death. However, Artaxerxes, who had long been a friend of Arbaces, doubts his guilt. He releases Arbaces from prison and allows him to escape through a secret passage. Rimenes, encouraged by Artabanes, then goes off to lead a rebellion against Artaxerxes.

In the Temple of the Sun Artaxerxes, surrounded by his nobles, swears to maintain the rights, laws, and customs of his subjects and is about to pledge this by drinking from a sacred cup, unaware that Artabanes has poisoned the drink. Before Artaxerxes can drink from the cup, news arrives that Rimenes and his men are at the palace gates. The danger is averted when Arbaces kills the traitor, confirming to Artaxerxes that his friend is innocent. Artaxerxes then offers the sacred cup to Arbaces instead so that he may pledge his innocence.

Artabanes is now faced with seeing his son die or confessing the truth. He confesses to all that he has poisoned the cup, intending to kill Artaxerxes and that he had also assassinated Xerxes. Artabanes is led off in chains. Artaxerxes, out of his love for Semira and his gratitude to Arbaces, condemns their father to eternal exile rather than death. The opera ends with the two pairs of lovers reunited and the jubilation of all. [14]

Noted arias

The piano and voice score for Fair Aurora, pr'ythee stay (p. 1), published in Philadelphia in 1796 Fair Aurora by Thomas Arne piano vocal score published 1796.jpg
The piano and voice score for Fair Aurora, pr'ythee stay (p. 1), published in Philadelphia in 1796


A live recording of a 1979 BBC concert performance was once available on LP. However, the first major studio recording to be released on CD is from Hyperion Records. [23]

The performance of Artaxerxes at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2009 to celebrate Arne's 300th birthday was followed by release of a studio recording in 2010 by Linn Records.

Notes and references

  1. University of North Texas Libraries
  2. A similar riot occurred the month before during a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Drury Lane Theatre. For more about the London Half-Price Riots, see McPherson (2002)
  3. quoted in Norton Topics Online
  4. Hodgart and Bauerle (1997) p. 22
  5. Sonneck (1907) pp. 67-68 and 172
  6. Casaglia
  7. Holman (1995)
  8. Dunnett (11 December 2002)
  9. Royal Opera House
  10. D'Arcy Wood (2008)
  11. Holman (1995)
  12. Royal Opera House
  13. Premiere cast from Casaglia
  14. Synopsis adapted from the 1827 acting copy of the libretto, published in British Theatre, Volume 19, J. Cumberland, 1828
  15. Richard Grant White quoted in Lawrence (1995) p. 282.
  16. See Beverly Sills and Friends (Deutsche Grammophon); Joan Sutherland: The Art of the Prima Donna (Decca)
  17. e.g. "By wather parted from the say". See Hodgart and Bauerle (1997) p. 238 and passim for more.
  18. Gridiron Gabble, Green Room Gossip (London, 1808), pp. 120-121 quoted in Burden (2008)
  19. Heighes (1995) p. 242
  20. Sonneck pp. 145, 168, 235
  21. Johns Hopkins University. Filippo Trisobio was an Italian voice teacher and composer living in Philadelphia, where he died in 1798.
  22. Hogarth (1835) p. 312
  23. Camner (July 1996)


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