Tamerlano is probably Handel’s bleakest opera – the plot is so gloomy that even modern audiences may find it depressive: there are no light comprimario servants to make fun of their masters’ predicaments, the good guy is incredibly phlegmatic, the damsell in distress tries to save herself alone during the whole opera and even tries to get rid of the tyrant with her own hands (twice), not to mention almost everyone threatents to commit suicide until someone finally does it. Of course, Handel ensures that this is going to be a no-nonsense affair by providing a powerfully expressive score to match his best-known operas. But the bitter aftertaste is almost unique among his works*.
How to present a work as intense as Tamerlano to modern audiences largely unaware of the code of affetti employed by baroque composers to portray feelings and sensations is always a challenge out of the context of specialized festivals and the Washington National Opera must certainly be praised by its boldness, largely explained by the fact its General Director and this production’s star tenor happen to be the same person.
Adapting an opera house orchestra into a baroque band is always something of a challenge, especially in what involves producing light textures that allow singers to project tricky vocal lines into a large auditorium without any loss in clarity. In order to achieve that, British conductor William Lacey apparently decided to play safe. The comfortable tempi were very helpful to all involved, but the sense of sameness was inevitable: arie d’affetto and arie di furie had basically the same sound. To make things more problematic, the orchestra played on the same plummy sunny sound that usually makes baroque music sound gentle and lovely – precisely what you don’t need in an opera such as this one. If this performance finally achieved some animation, this is uniquely due to the excellent cast gathered here.
Unlike most reviewers, I had no preconceived idea about what Plácido Domingo’s Handelian venture would be like. First of all, I consider it impossible to intend to make a blind listening and disregard this tenor’s past achievements and present age. I must say right away that it is almost miraculous that a singer almost in his 70’s should be able to retain such beauty and freshness of tone. Although the part of Bajazet is not really high (baritone Tassis Christoyannis has just recorded the role for George Petrou – not in modern pitch, truth be said), its writing requires a great deal of flexibility. The problem in Domingo’s performance is precisely that he had to concentrate on the notes and the result was dramatically quite tame. Even on purely musical terms, he struggled a bit with passagework and large intervals felt also really large. Only in the closing scene, he seemed somewhat plugged-in. However, the question my ten readers are curious to ask has to do with stylistic matters and I must answer that a musician as refined as Domingo naturally has an intuitive grasp of how baroque phrasing is. His singing was generally clean and his attempts at decoration were discrete but not misguided. I really didn’t feel as if he would sing Nessun Dorma in the next minute. I would rather blame his seniority the occasional clipped high note or reluctance to scale down.
In the title role, David Daniels proved to be in excellent shape. Compared to his performance in the concert with Lisa Saffer in Barcelona, he seemed tonight a different singer. The voice was fuller, more generous in the lower and upper extremes and even more powerful. He must be praised by his variety and imagination in recitative too. Only a laboured A dispetto d’un volto ingrato (paced rather fast by the conductor) stood between him and complete success. I have to confess I am a partisan of Bejun Mehta in this role. Although he is still unrivalled, Daniels is a very commendable number two.
In the key role of Andronico, Patricia Bardon proved again why she is listed among the greatest Handelian contralto of our days. Her excitingly dark and forceful and extremely ductile and flexible voice was at home either providing caressing lyrical singing or sparkling bravura. She was positively partnered by the lovely-looking and -sounding Sarah Coburn. Her fruity creamy soprano is far richer than we are used to hear in this role – and this is all for the best. A role tragic as this requires more tone colouring than what an oratorio soprano generally offers – and Coburn never lets the audience down – she is dramatically engaged, floats high mezza voce whenever this is required, has easy trills and divisions and is also a convincing actress.
Although the part of Leone was pratically reduced to comprimario, Andrew Foster-Williams seized the moment with his only remaining aria, Nel mondo e nell’abisso, to showcase all the capabilities of his incisive and supple bass. His acting talents are also praiseworthy.
I know Irene is an ingrate role and the casting of yet another mezzo is always tricky. That said, I cannot consider Claudia Huckle in the level of her colleagues. She sang her aria di furia in a most placid state of mind and sounded contrived with her fioriture even in the very slow tempi provided by the conductor. She fared considerably better in the beautiful Par che mi nasca in sen.
Probably in order to compensate the uneventful conducting, the edition adopted in this production involves the loss of a significant number of arias and the reduction of some others to the A-section alone. I have the impression that the two orchestral interludes performed tonight non-existent in the score are arrangements of deleted arias, not to mention other small liberties.
Director Chas Rader-Shieber staged the opera in a hall vaguely 1940’s-like. Tamerlano is some kind of military dictator who has deposed local aristocracy and reduced them to the status of political prisioners. I couldn’t understand why Bajazet and Asteria are dressed as if they were characters of The Abduction from the Seraglio while the others have contemporary costumes. There was nothing like a feast to the eyes going on there, but what was shown on stage is neither ugly nor contrived. I should say that the direction of actors was mercifully economical and discrete, unlike most Handel stagings these days.
* Maybe the theme of suicide particularly inspired Handel, for the Lucrezia cantata is certainly one of his most gripping works.