For the first release on the new Avie label,
we are graced with a live recording of Trevor Pinnock’s version
of Handel’s Tamerlano
, recorded in June 2001. At the
same time, a recording of a performance of this work was made
at the Handel festival in Halle, Germany, and is released on
DVD with the same cast and performers.
Handel composed Tamerlano
weeks in July 1724. Coming on the heels of Giulio Cesare
and just before Rodelinda
, this was part of Handel’s
most fecund period of opera compositions. Telling the tale
of the Tamerlane, emperor of the Tatars, and his love for Asteria,
the daughter of the Turkish sultan Bajazet who he has taken
prisoner. The context of the story was well-known to the 18th
century theatre-going public, since a play entitle ‘Tamerlane’,
by William Rowe, was performed every year in London on 4 and
5 November. Tamerlano
premiered on 31 October, and this
was certainly not a chance date.
Handel revived Tamerlano
once in 1731,
making several major changes - he added one aria, but especially
cut a great deal of the recitatives, which are already the
most extensive in all of Handel’s operas. This recording uses
the 1731 score.
As with all live recordings, there are pros
and cons. The sound is never as good with live performances
as with studio recordings, and, on this CD, the sound is dense
and somewhat muted. The singers are not always miked very well,
and, when listening on headphones, this is especially distracting.
Nevertheless, the instruments are clear and present; even the
harpsichord can be heard well. Applause is heard several times,
such as after Andronico’s moving aria ‘Bella Asteria’ in the
first act, giving a feeling that the listener is truly there.
At least this is not one of those live recordings made to sound
like a studio recording …
There is a general issue that seems to pervade
this recording - with the exception of bass Antonio Abete (and
his role is very limited, singing but one aria, and participating
in a few recitatives), none of the soloists are primarily baroque
specialists. This means that the baroque idiom and performance
practice is lacking in the singing; the most obvious result
is an overuse of vibrato by most of the singers.
It seems strange to choose a female contralto
to play the lead role of Tamerlano. With so many capable counter-tenors
available, this stands out somewhat - I cannot help but think
that David Daniels would be perfect in this role. (The role
was originally written for alto castrato Andrea Pacini). Bacelli
uses a great deal of vibrato, but has a very attractive and "meaty" voice,
which does indeed sound almost masculine.
Almost one third of this work is recitative,
including several long sections that are four, five and seven
minutes long. This can be annoying to some listening to the
recording though this is not a problem with the DVD, where
you can see what is going on and follow the story more easily
Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz is brilliant as Asteria,
with a full, rich voice that resounds and moves (though she,
too, uses a lot of vibrato). Her long aria in the first act,
Deh, lasciatemi il nemico, is a masterpiece, and the balance
between the orchestra and her voice is exemplary.
Another strong aria is the final section of
act 2, Cor di padre, sung by Asteria. This tense song, with
brutally powerful rhythm pervading it, is one of the longest
in the work, and contains a great deal of emotion and pain.
Norberg-Schulz performs this very well, but it is the orchestra
who stars in this aria, with its strong, almost violent rhythm
and energetic strings.
Alto Graham Pushee is very good, and has several
occasions to stand out in this work. One of the finest is the
long aria Benchè mi sprezzi at the end of act 1. This
slow, subtle song of sorrow may be a bit lacking in emotion
- the sorrow does not come through enough - but musically his
singing is impeccable.
Tenor, Tom Randle has a wonderful voice, colourful
and intriguing, and is closer to a baritone, especially in
the beautiful aria Su la sponda at the beginning of the third
act. His voice is actually the closest to a more baroque style
that the other singers do not use - his use of vibrato is more
subtle and less permanent.
This is a fine recording of one of Handel’s
finest operas. While the singers could be a bit more baroque
in sensitivity, this is a great work, one that has not been
recorded much, and which deserves to be discovered or rediscovered
through this fine set.