, May 2009
If Handel’s two other great operas, Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda, are well known then this third of the trio of ‘greats’ should certainly join them. This production will do much to underline that.
For some years now the phrase ‘director’s opera’ has had a pejorative ring—sometimes with justification. This production has Graham Vick written all over it. Further, the music director James McCreesh concedes that that extends to choice of versions of scenes. “What do you mean, ‘choice of versions of scenes’? An opera is an opera is an opera.” Sorry but it is not: that is what we have come to expect today but Handel and very many composers re-wrote scenes or omitted, added or replaced arias according to the ability of the available singers. And Tamerlano is no exception. No, I do not intend to bore you with a detailed analysis. One example will suffice: death or coronation in the last scene? Well, here you get both.
What of the plot? The psychopathic Tamerlano has captured Ottoman leader Badajet and daughter Asteria. Tamerlano’s Greek buddy Andronico falls for Asteria. Meanwhile, Irene, princess of Trebizond, is on her way for her nuptials with Tamerlano. Tamerlano then decides that he will marry Asteria and palms Irene off on Andronico. Asteria’s two failed attempts on Tamerlano’s life and then Bajazet’s suicide persuade Tamerlano to revert to the original marital arrangement. Thus, theoretically, all ends happily but the music suggests otherwise, as it has throughout. This is ‘dark’ opera: Handel at his compelling best with some remarkable conventional da capo arias. There are three sections ABA where the singer is allowed free rein in the third which was much to the point of Handel’s operas when first produced: an opportunity for florid vocal display. And if you ever thought that da capo arias are repetitiously dull and boring then watch and listen. Further watch and listen carefully to the last scene where Handel almost ignored the musical conventions.
In Handel’s day productions were virtually static: singers stood and delivered and then frequently left the stage to applause hence, called, the exit aria. Curiously McCreesh describes this production as “quite still”. Maybe: in comparison with other operatic productions. However, for me, Vick instils this one with wholly appropriate body and facial movement. I cannot pretend that I understand all of the symbolism, particularly of the silent ‘groupies’ who accompany some of the singing: and just occasionally distract attention from it—an example is during the only aria given to Leone—Tamerlano’s henchman. That aside, the acting here is first class, capturing Tamerlano’s almost demonic personality, Badajet’s decline and his reciprocated love for Asteria and also Andronico’s constancy.
We expect no less. This is Monica Bacelli, the proven exciting Handelian in the title trouser role and the ‘imported’ Plácido Domingo as Badajet; ‘imported’ because this is his first Handel part in over a hundred roles and it is perfectly suited for him: a truly dramatic tenor.
Bacelli is in excellent form displaying a neurotic vibrancy through very expressive movements. This is not ‘stand and deliver’ and nor is it a general-distraction cavort about the stage: but it is movement to encompass the stage and engage the audience in her characterful playing. Yes, and she sings too. Whilst her smaller voice contrasts with Domingo’s power she never loses her strong focus or line and elegant phrasing. Not a pitch out of place, not a run slurred; most arias at a faster pace with opportunity for colouring and strong tones that she never misses.
Domingo is equally splendid portraying the beaten leader. Dramatic singing throughout. If I have a slight hesitation it would be about vocal flexibility in the quicker aria Ciel e terra (disc 1 track 15)—hardly surprising in a singer of his years which generally show no sign of catching up with him. But here I am being ‘nit-picky’. His is vocal drama which makes us empathize with a fallen leader of the Ottoman Empire and renders understandable the taking of his own life. That is no mean feat when his beloved daughter Asteria still lives. Domingo gives a master class in diction, dynamics and phrasing. His final aria is magnificently delivered as he leaves the stage backwards into the darkness.
The Swedish soprano Ingela Bohlin effortlessly despatches the role of Asteria, or so she makes it appear. This high-lying soprano role does not trouble her. In her splendid aria Cor di padre (disc 2 track 24) at the end of Act 2 she vocally wanders about at the top of and above the stave, occasionally leaping there with total accuracy. In her aria Se non mi vuol amor (disc 1 track 13) she leaves high notes just hanging exquisitely in the air. She has a very secure vibrato—and that is not an oxymoron—and a gentle trill which adds much to aria meaning and audience enjoyment.
Sara Mingardo is a true contralto but noticeably of smaller voice. Bearing in mind how responsive McCreesh is with the orchestra for the forte and piano of the roles for Bacelli and Domingo, it is disappointing that he does not at all times afford Mingardo that same facility/kindness/support. Mingardo has wonderful vocal flexibility with quite remarkable beauty of tone. No applause for her act 1 aria Bella Asteria (disc 1 track9) which I would have expected to lead to sustained applause. Her timbre balances extremely well with both Bacelli and Bohlin to produce some delightful sounds.
Jennifer Holloway, as Irene arrives on stage aloft by some three metres on a gorgeous blue elephant on wheels. Could it be that the slightly irregular jumbo traverse of the stage contributes to her occasional lack of smoothness and steadiness of note in her opening aria? Certainly when back on stage terra firma her smooth clarity of note returns and when singing piano there is great beauty of tone.
De Donato, as Leone, is afforded one aria. Here it is the act 2 Amor dà guerra (disc 2 track 10) as opposed to the act 3 option of Nel mondo e nell’ abisso. Apart from a slight hint of effort when on serious high he sings clearly with a firm line. His problem, or rather our problem, is to concentrate on him while three pairs of ‘supporters’ perform a variety of symbolic mimes. Despite watching it several times I remain convinced that I do not fully understand all the symbolism.
That applies also to movements that take place on the balcony which goes around the semi-circular stage where the ‘groupies’ perform various mimes in slow motion around it or small blue elephants move equally slowly. That leaves a bare stage over which hangs the celebrated foot on the globe (no prizes for guessing that piece of symbolism) variously pushed up by Badajet or crushing him or Asteria. It also ascends and descends almost imperceptibly as appropriate to the stage action. In act 2 in what is almost a coup de théâtre it revolves through 180° to reveal its hollow back with gold lining and a seat that becomes Tamerlano’s throne.
The only stage prop which doesn’t seem to me to be particularly effective is the long bench protruding from the back stage in the first part of act 3 which serves at Tamerlano’s throne. Otherwise, the stage effects together with the matching half moons near stage front that move together to form another circle and become a prop in their own right, are spectacularly effective.
Colours are also fundamental. The stage is white, the costumes black and/or white except for the splendid Act 2 vivid lime green for Tamerlano and later a brilliant cerise. Irene has similarly strongly coloured costume when on her elephant. As you can see above Badajet and daughter are in white and remain so throughout. Symbolism in colours? I think so.
All that said there is a fault: but not with the production. It is the subtitles: too frequently the translation leaves a great deal to be desired. It is not idiomatic; indeed occasionally it is archaic if not arcane. Rely on them and from time to time you might struggle to follow the plot. Any such problem is overcome by the synopsis—one of the extra features. There is also a helpful commentary in the accompanying booklet.
The final points must be alternative productions and cost. The only alternative DVD that I have found is the recording of the production at the 2001 Handel Festival at Halle (Arthaus Musik 100702). The title role is again taken by Monica Bacelli. Thomas Randle, of distinctive timbre, is Badajet but to my mind is not in Domingo’s class for vocal or dramatic acting. If you prefer a counter-tenor for Andronico then here is Graham Pushee in fervent form. Irene is the creamy smooth engaging mezzo of Anna Bonitatibus. Elizabeth Norberg-Shulz and Antonio Abete complete the cast. Jonathan Miller is the director for Halle production and relies primarily on vocal display to captivate the audience. This is indeed a more static performance in seriously colourful Eastern costumes but without the costume contrasts, stage movement and drama of the Vick/McCreesh production.
There are several additional points to note about the Halle production. First and surprisingly the singers are ‘miked’. Second there are numerous extras including interviews with noted Handelians and some interesting historical film footage. In addition it offers as a special feature “Score plus: read the score as subtitle”. When elected the performance fades and continues in the background with the score superimposed over it: novel and seriously expanding the opportunities for enjoyment.
On the internet I found that this Vick/McCreesh production is a fiver dearer than the Halle production and at a best price of around £24 it is not cheap—but for me it is worth every penny or euro for this sensitively filmed three disc set with one act on each.