, June 2009
I’m not sure whether it’s reassuring or alarming to realize that the mysterious Middle East and its Muslim religion and culture have both fascinated and terrified people for centuries before our current age. Witness, for example, the somewhat unexpected case in point of 18th century opera. Two masterpieces, Handel’s Tamerlano in 1724, and Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio in 1782 both sought to exploit the public’s fascination with far off lands and mystique-laden rituals. Both of these pieces never really are redolent of the culture they seek to portray—they’re too firmly rooted in their composers’ own idioms—but they’re nonetheless two extremely apt examples of how long Islam has reached out, however subtly at times, to tap the Western world on its collective shoulder and say, “Hey, we’re here, too.”
Handel evidently managed to compose his epic piece over the course of a mere 20 days, which, considering the length of Tamerlano (this particular production clocks in at a bit over four hours), seems absolutely protean. The plot is the basic operatic staple of two mismatched couples who of course want other partners. In this case we have Tamerlano (Monica Bocelli, an alto taking over the role originally written for a castrato, per usual convention), Emperor of the Turks, who lusts after Asteria (Angela Bohlin), daughter of defeated Ottoman Emperor Bajazet (Placido Domingo). Asteria is, however, really in love with Andronico (Sara Mingardo), and Tamerlano seems to have completely forsaken the woman who really loves him, Irene (Jennifer Holloway). And so we get a familiar plot device wrapped up in an ostensibly Oriental package, something that no doubt delighted audiences in Handel’s day, and has continued to bring new listeners to one of Handel’s most assured and impressive pieces of writing.
What will probably bring most viewers and listeners to this particular 2008 production is the presence of Placido Domingo, essaying his first Baroque operatic role. It turns out to be a wonderful choice, with Domingo’s still rich and pliant tenor easily gliding through Handel’s melismas and making the most of such impressive arias as “Forte e lieto a morte andrei.” Those unaccustomed to the operatic conceit of using women to play roles originally written for castrati may find it a bit harder to swallow Bocelli and Mingardo in their roles, but the entire cast actually acquits itself quite well, and all of the principals sing magnificently.
This is also a very interesting and spare physical production with just enough flashes of wit and style to keep the eye entertained. The main set piece of the entire opera is a huge globe with a foot placed atop it, evidently an allusion to the Turks defeating the Ottomans. And while the bulk of the set tends to be in homogenous whites, brilliant flashes of color, as in a playful large blue elephant that makes a nice entrance in Act I, seem all the more colorful simply by way of contrast.
Paul McCreesh guides the orchestra of the Teatro Real with assurance, and delivers a rich and satisfying sound (on contemporary instruments, so none of the dry Baroque string sounds). The orchestra is extremely well balanced and Handel’s unending supply of contrapuntal genius is given an abundantly clear performance here.
The only real drawback to Tamerlano is its unremitting length. Handel actually went back to the drawing board several times through his career and cut large swaths of the opera out of various performing versions, but this one seems to have it all, and then some. It’s probably best taken in smaller doses—say, an act at a time, with an interval in between. That gives the viewer time to digest Handel’s surprisingly intense and florid music without succumbing to the malaise of wondering if all this gorgeousness is ever going to end.
Tamerlano is a beautiful piece, full of Handel’s exquisite melodies and harmonic invention, and this unadorned, yet slyly playful, production brings it home in an appealing and attractive package, with a very impressive performance by Domingo.
Tamerlano arrives in a nicely crisp 1.78:1 (1080i, as most of these live opera BDs tend to be) transfer with an AVC codec. Whites are very impressive here, with no blooming despite the stage being overrun with various light shades at times. What colors there are are very well saturated and all detail is extremely crisp. There are some actual stage lighting issues which keep this BD from a higher overall score—faces fall into shadow and some action is bathed in darkness.
Both the uncompressed PCM 5.0 and 2.0 mixes are outstanding, with excellent balance and top-notch fidelity. The 5.0 actually tends to let some of the singing get a bit lost in the overall spaciousness of the sound design, so you may end up preferring the 2.0, but both deliver excellent range with absolutely no distortion or other problems. English, French, German and Spanish subtitles are available.
As usual with these OpusArte releases, you get an illustrated synopsis and a cast gallery. There’s also a nice interview with McCreesh and a great insert booklet with an excellent essay by Juan Jose Carreras.
Tamerlano remains one of the glories of the Baroque opera repertoire, and this is about as excellent a production as you could hope for. Nothing is “tricked out,” but there’s enough innovation and fun in the visual presentation to keep boredom from setting in. Due to its rather overpowering length, first-timers are advised to take this in smaller doses, but for everyone with a love of fine music, this BD is Highly Recommended.
Dr Svet Atanasov
, May 2009
Composed by Georg Frideric Handel, on a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, after Agostino Piovene’s Il Tamerlano (1711) and Il Bajazet (1719), both set by Gasparini, based on the play by Jacques Pradon, Tamerlano, au La Mort de Bajazet, Tamerlano is an Italian opera seria in three acts. It was first performed at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, London, on October 31, 1724.
This Blu-ray disc contains a production of Tamerlano courtesy of Orchestra of the Teatro Real, led by Maestro Paul McCreesh, and Stage Director Graham Vick, which was recorded live on March 29, 2008 at Teatro Real, Madrid. The first performance of the production was at Teatro della Pergola, Florence on May 17, 2001.
Like most baroque operas, Tamerlano has appeared in a number of different versions. Handel repeatedly edited the score until he finally settled on a version that reflected his vision. This specific rendition of Tamerlano is more or less representative of Handel’s first version of the opera. It is notably long and with a number of sequences that did not make it into later versions.
The opera itself is quite unusual—it is incredibly intense and with a surprisingly rich score. Maestro McCreesh and Orchestra of the Teatro Real do not use period instruments, but their treatment of the musical text—particularly in regard to vibrato, dynamics, and sound transparency—is stylistically convincing.
The cast is fantastic. This rendition of Tamerlano marked Placido Domingo’s first ever involvement with Baroque opera. Nonetheless, he sings with relentless passion and vigor. Sara Mingardo, Jennifer Halloway, Ingela Bohlin and specifically Monica Bacelli, as Tamerlano, are every bit as impressive.
Presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, encoded with MPEG-4 AVC and granted a 1080i “live” transfer, Handel’s Tamerlano arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Opus Arte.
This is only the second 2BD release the distributors have released on the North American market. As expected, it is a terrific package—contrast is top-notch, clarity fantastic and detail very pleasing. The color-scheme is also quite strong. Light blues, greens, whites and blacks are all colors of importance that look rich and well-saturated. Furthermore, there are no lighting issues to report, though there are a few very awkward shots that I noticed (mostly due to the operator’s desire to capture the stage and the orchestra at the same time). Edge-enhancement and macroblocking are not an issue of concern. Mild motion-judder, however, occasionally pops up. This being said, there is no artificial sharpening that I could detect. I did not see any serious image distortions to report either. To sum it all up, this is a strong and very convincing presentation of Handel’s Tamerlano which I am convinced opera aficionados will enjoy tremendously. (Note: This is Region-Free Blu-ray release. Therefore, you will be able to play it on your PS3 or SA regardless of your geographical location).
There are two audio tracks on this Blu-ray disc: Italian LPCM 5.0 and Italian LPCM 2.0. I opted for the Italian LPCM 2.0 track and later on did a few random comparisons with the Italian LPCM 5.0 track for the purpose of this review.
I tested this Blu-ray disc the day I received it. I picked one of Placido Domingo’s arias and quickly experimented with the two LPCM tracks. I liked the Italian LPCM 2.0 track better (I will explain why) and decided to watch Tamerlano in its entirety with it. The key reason why I picked the Italian LPCM 2.0 track over the Italian LPCM 5.0 track was balance. As I noted in my analysis of the opera, Maestro McCreesh and Orchestra of the Teatro Real did not use period instruments. Therefore, they were forced to introduce all sorts of adjustments in order to achieve the type of period sound Tamerlano necessitates. As a result, I felt that the Italian LPCM 2.0 track reflected better what Maestro McCreesh and the orchestra musicians were looking for (particularly as far as string section is concerned). The singing was practically identical on both tracks. This being said, the Italian LPCM 5.0 track is also quite good. However, I do believe that the more sensitive amongst you will notice that the track tends to reveal quite a few acoustic issues. For example, there are a few echo effects that pop up here and there that are far more difficult to her on the Italian LPCM 2.0 track. Finally, I did not detect any disturbing dropouts, pops, cracks, or hissings. For the records, Opus Arte have provided optional English, French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles.
This Blu-ray disc arrives with a stylish 32-page booklet containing the informative essay “The Shadows of Hell” by Juan Jose Carreras, which focuses on the rich history of Handel’s opera as well as its fascinating characters. The essay is available in English, French and German.
On the actual Blu-ray disc, there is an illustrated synopsis for the opera, cast gallery , and an interview with Maestro McCreesh where he dissects Tamerlano and offers his thoughts on why it is considered one of the best operas from the Baroque repertoire. The interview arrives with optional French, German, Italian and Spanish subtitles.
Opus Arte continue to add terrific titles to their already very impressive catalog of opera releases. This time around, they have put together a strong package for Handel’s beloved Tamerlano. The Blu-ray disc herein reviewed looks and sounds great. This said, I must warn you that Tamerlano is a very long opera. So, plan your time accordingly! Highly Recommended!