Who would have thought that a long-forgotten Baroque opera such as Artaserse by Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730) could cause such a huge sensation? Obviously, casting five fine countertenors in the production helped, but I also think it is a testament to the recent rise of interest in Baroque operas by composers other than Handel. After the initial successful run at the Opéra National de Lorraine in Nancy in November 2012, the opera has travelled quite extensively in concert and finally this month it was staged at the very appropriate venue of the Opéra Royal de Versailles. It was indeed a grand spectacle fit for the Sun King.

Max Emanuel Cenčić (Mandane) and Franco Fagioli (Arbace) © Julian Laidig
Max Emanuel Cenčić (Mandane) and Franco Fagioli (Arbace)
© Julian Laidig

The ingenious idea to cast countertenors in the female roles as well as the high male roles is in fact based on historical practice. At the time Vinci composed Artaserse (1730), women were not allowed on stage in Papal Rome, so all the roles were composed for male singers – five castrati and one tenor. And we certainly had a fine line-up of singers at Versailles. Although Philippe Jaroussky, who sang the title role in the original production (and on CD/DVD), was replaced this time round by the young and fresh-sounding Korean-born countertenor Vince Yi, Franco Fagioli, Max Emanuel Cenčić, Valer Sabadus and Yuriy Mynenko all reassembled for this staging and they all sang gloriously. Yet, of these five countertenors, it was apparent that Fagioli was “the Special One”. His colourful voice, versatile technique, huge vocal range and stage presence is quite sensational.

Vinci’s Artaserse is in many ways a prototype Italian Baroque opera. It was composed to an original libretto by the celebrated Italian poet Pietro Metastasio, which became so popular that it was set more than 100 times by composers including Hasse, Gluck, Jommelli, J.C. Bach and Paisiello. Compared with many of Handel's operas with which we are familiar, Artaserse has a surprisingly gripping dramatic plot (especially when performed with all the recitatives intact) and the characters face various political and personal dilemmas, which gives the composer ample opportunities to write emotionally charged arias.

Set in 5th century B.C. Persia, the opera revolves around political intrigue, filial loyalty, friendship and the relationship between two pairs of lovers. Artabano, the ambitious prefect of the Royal Guard, attempts to seize the throne by killing Serse, King of Persia. However, by giving the bloodstained sword to his son Arbace to hide, Arbace in turn becomes the suspect of the murder. Arbace insists he is innocent but cannot betray his father. Artaserse, son of the murdered Serse and successor to the throne, believes in his friend’s innocence, but cannot save him without proof. In this desperate situation, the relationships between the lovers Arbace and Mandane (Artaserse’s sister), and Artaserse and Semira (Arbace’s sister), are severely strained. After many twists and turns (including a poison plot), the opera reaches a speedy climax: Artabano is forced to confess, Arbace is freed, Artaserse is crowned and the two couples are reunited.

The production, directed by Silviu Purcarete (revived by Rares Zaharia) with designs by Helmut Stürmer, is an extravagant parody on “Baroque Opera” with outrageously over-the-top costumes, wigs/headpieces and even gold graffiti. The stage action begins before the overture: the story is set in the framework of an opera company preparing for a performance and we see the singers putting on costumes and make-up (white painted faces) in a large dressing room assisted by the stagehands (played by actors). Within this open-plan stage, the opera sets are created by a clever and speedy use of a revolving stage and movable partitions. The singers seem to weave in and out of the operatic world; for example, at the end of Act I, Arbace suddenly throws off his wig and returns to reality while singing his showstopping aria “Vo solcando un mar crudele”.

Max Emanuel Cenčić (Mandane) and Franco Fagioli (Arbace) © Julian Laidig
Max Emanuel Cenčić (Mandane) and Franco Fagioli (Arbace)
© Julian Laidig

And show-stopping it was indeed! Up to that point, everyone (including Fagioli) was singing beautifully, with technical finesse, but when Fagioli sang this bravura aria with jaw-dropping virtuosity, the audience simply erupted and raised the roof. Two things entered my mind as I listened: firstly, that Vinci composed his best and most virtuosic music for his star castrato, Carestini, who was the original Arbace; and secondly, more than any other countertenor I have heard to date, Fagioli’s voice makes me wonder whether this was what a castrato might have sounded like. His voice has a sensual quality and also a huge vocal range (did he really go up to top D in baroque pitch in the cadenza?), characteristics often associated with castrati. I found myself totally swept away by his singing, even though his continuous and wide vibrato is not really to my taste.

I hasten to stress that the other four countertenors were hugely impressive too. Sabadus was highly attractive as the gentle-natured Semira, technically consistent and expressive. Both he and Cenčić seemed totally at ease at playing women and Cenčić sang Mandane’s aria “Va’ tra le selve ircane” in Act II with bravura and almost hysterical feistiness (it was like a Baroque version of the Queen of the Night “Der Hölle Rache”). As Artaserse, Vince Yi has a wonderfully pure voice with little vibrato. He is technically agile and excelled in his cadenzas and ornamentation and with a little more voice projection and stage confidence, he will surely go further. Yuriy Mynenko, in the role of Megabise, Artabano’s sidekick, has a relatively conventional countertenor voice, but he played the baddie with relish. Last, but not least, the tenor Juan Sancho played Artabano as a buffo character and what he lacked in agility he made up with his lively expression.

All this colourful singing was controlled brilliantly, but with flexibility, by Diego Fasolis, directing from the harpsichord. He brought out vibrant and zippy playing from the 20-strong forces of the period instrument ensemble Concerto Köln (a few horn fluffs apart). In particular, his inventive and often quite bold recitative accompaniment added to the spontaneity of the music-making. I had enjoyed the CD recording of Artaserse by these forces, but by experiencing the work live and staged, I was able to both understand and enjoy this neglected masterpiece at a wholly new level.