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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
earlier review of the live performance by José Irurzun