Handel wrote Tamerlano for the Royal Academy in 1724 but it wasn’t a great success in his lifetime — he only revived it once, in 1731. Since the Handel revival, however, it has been one of the operas that has most grabbed our contemporary attention, not just because of the quality of the arias but because of the innovative ways in which Handel uses and sometimes usurps the conventions of opera seria. In fact, you could argue that the very things that made it less palatable to Handel’s audiences make it more interesting to us, not least the important role for a tenor. Two examples of Handel’s structural and psychological innovations stand out: the end of Act 2 is particularly striking, the key scene where Asteria's plan to kill Tamerlano is exposed, thus vindicating her honour in the eyes of her father and her former fiancée who had thought her false. For this key scene, Handel shakes up what we might have expected from the form, including an accompagnato recitative for Bajazet, a trio for the main protagonists, and three short ariettas that congratulate Asteria for her bravery as each character exits. The most famous dramatic coup, however, and one of Handel’s most famous moments, is Bajazet's death scene at the end of Act 3. Throughout the opera, the captured Ottoman emperor repeatedly threatens suicide, but when he does finally take poison, rather than give him a graceful death aria (as was his more conventional practice), Handel creates a remarkable musical drama out of Bajazet’s final aria and accompagnato that not only conveys the character’s emotions with dramatic truth but actually mimics the process of the poison taking control of his body, with stabbing string phrases to suggest the final beatings of his heart and the agonised death-throes rattling through him. It’s startlingly modern, the kind of thing that you might more expect to hear in Mozart, or even Wagner, and this performance does justice not only to this moment but to the whole, skilfully constructed opera.
It's pretty clear that Bajazet is the character that interested Handel the most, though he is actually a fairly static figure, adopting a pretty permanent position of rage and perpetually (almost monotonously) threatening suicide. That said, he gets the pick of the arias, with lots of variety, both for beauty and for display, and John Mark Ainsley is a brilliant choice to portray him. Ainsley judges the balance between pain and resolution just right, paring down his tone so that he never sounds too big for the music, and adapting his voice to the character of each aria. He is beautifully sweet in his first aria about his daughter but thrillingly noble in his showpiece Act 1 aria Ciel e terra. Likewise, there is resolution and determination in his Act 2 scenes where he condemns Asteria for (supposedly) taking on the throne of his enemy, and the all-important scenes in the final act, including the suicide, are not only beautifully sung but dramatically exciting, too. He is worthy of comparing with the best in this role.
As Tamerlano himself, Xavier Sabata, whose brooding visage glowers out of the cover photo, has an other-worldly quality to his voice that can comes across as coldness, but this helps to add to his characterisation of the Tartar emperor who is capable is such deeds of both greatness and cruelty. Technically speaking he is never less than secure, such as in the tricky leaps of his first aria in Act 2. His interpretation is at its greatest, however, as the character becomes most monstrous: his third act aria, A dispetto d'un volto ingrato, sung as he orders the humiliation of Bajazet and Asteria, is not only technically brilliant but full of cold detachment from the deed which he has done, and this only grows as the third act runs its course.
Max Emanuel Cenčić has an eerily feminine quality to his voice which is not always endearing, but he sings with great beauty. His first aria to Asteria's beauty is a gorgeous Handelian pastoral, sung with ethereal charm, and he is good at the difficult runs of his aria that ends Act 1. I really enjoyed the athleticism of Piu d'una tigre altero in Act 2 and his Act 3 duet with Asteria sounds ravishing, the two voices blending delectably against the flutes in the orchestra. Karina Gauvin brings the aristocratic beauty of her voice to the role of Asteria, the princess who is loved by both Tamerlano and Andronico. She sings her first aria, a lilting Siciliana, with wounded dignity as well as sumptuous beauty, whereas the subsequent Deh, lasciatemi il nemico is full of pathos which suits the restrained nobility of her voice very well indeed. She finds a surprisingly cheeky note as she mocks Andronico at the start of Act 2, but her finest moment is her great third act aria Cor di padre, where she contemplates the loss of both her father and her brother. A hitherto unknown rawness enters Gauvin's voice at this point to reflect the character's extreme emotional strain, and this is mirrored by the jabbing string motions that speak of the pain in her heart.
Ruxandra Donose uses the rich depth of her voice to form a strong contrast to Gauvin, and she makes a good deal of the tricky role of the vengeful lover who still feels for the one who rejected her. Her second act aria, Par che mi nasca in seno, is particularly lovely, beautifully sung and sustained. Pavel Kudinov doesn't have much to so as Leone, but his vigorous bass voice makes a welcome contrast to all the others, and his third act aria is particularly strong.
Il Pomo d'oro, whose work is new to me, prove themselves to be as agile, flexible and characterful a Handel band as any you will find out there. They attack the score with passion and commitment, and their vigour is well controlled by Riccardo Minasi, who shapes each aria with loving care and a keen ear for detail. Importantly, their playing is never a mere accompaniment to the characters, but an integral part of the every aria, and the strings acquit themselves brilliantly as actors in the drama every bit as important as the singers. The recording quality is also very good, though so close that you can often hear the musicians taking a breath before a chord, which you may or may not find endearing.
In short, this set probably now makes a first choice Tamerlano as against its closest competition, Gardiner’s Erato set with the English Baroque, which is excellent but a little soft-edged in comparison with this one. On the other hand why not check out Graham Vick’s production from Madrid’s Teatro Real on film? It has a great cast, including none other than Plácido Domingo as Bajazet — no doubt it was mounted because he wanted to try the role — with Paul McCreesh in the pit. It sends some hardcore Handelians into apoplexy, but I rather liked it.