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Handel, Tamerlano: Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid. Conductor: Paul McCreesh. Teatro Real de Madrid. 26 and 28.03.2008 (JMI)


Production: Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

Director: Graham Vick.

Sets and Costumes: Richard Hudson.

Lighting: Matthew Richardson.


Tamerlano: Monica Bacelli/Ann Hallenberg.

Bajazet: Plácido Domingo/Bruce Ford.

Asteria: Ingela Bohlin/ Isabel Rey.

Andronico: Sara Mingardo/Patricia Bardon.

Irene: Jennifer Holloway/Renata Pokupic.

Leone: Luigi De Donato

Bajazet: Plácido Domingo

Baroque opera is truly in fashion nowadays and it is not necessary to use too many arguments to prove it. Handel operas were mostly rarities until some 30 years ago, while today he is one of the composers performed most frequently. This popularity is based to a great extent,  on the fact that these operas are performed probably as never before in history, combining original and imaginative productions, along with the availability of great musical directors and very suitable singers to choose from. The difficulties for opera companies nowadays are in programming Verdi and belcanto, since the voices for this repertoire are more than slightly scarce.

All this has moved many leading opera houses to offer baroque opera regularly in their programs. The basic argument used by the people in charge of programming in these houses – apart from their very respectable personal criteria – is in fact that these operas can be  staged with exceptional quality these days. All this may be  true, but I  am not convinced that the public is necessarily overwhelmed  with delight by the trend.

Teatro Real is one of the theaters keenest  on this type of repertoire, particularly recently. Reading the program for the 2007/2008 opera season,  one can see that out of the 16 titles offered, 7 of them (over 40 %) date from prior to 1800. There is no Verdi and only one belcanto work. Any criterion for programming must be personal of course  but what I consider most important for anything chosen is that promoters must take maximum care of all of the aspects of every opera staged. This was the case only to a limited extent in Tamerlano. It was a beautiful production that had meticulous musical direction and included the  presence of Superman Domingo in one of  the casts. But this cannot hide the vocal poverty of much of the first cast, which was not up to the standard expected from a leading opera company.

This production was premiered 7 years ago in the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and has stage direction by Graham Vick. The  production has  great and flexible beauty, but  more is  needed  in  an opera like Tamerlano, which in this version offers 3 and half hours of music. The stage consists of a semicircular white set with a large hanging globe under a giant foot, symbol of the Tartar oppression of the vanquished Ottomans. At one point, the globe turns and shows its hidden face as Tamerlano’s throne. The beauty of the production has much to do with the rich colour contrasts between the outstanding costumes, black for the Tartars, white for the Ottomans and grey for the Greeks. Add to this some beautiful elephants in blue and gold  and you have  a simply gorgeous production from an aesthetic point of view: but it’s short of life on stage.

Musical direction was in the hands of Paul McCreesh, without a doubt one of the more important conductors in this type of repertoire. He provided a good performance, improving as the opera progressed, after a rather boring first act. Between him and some other baroque conductors there is the same  difference that can exist between a good restaurant and a “three star” restaurant:  he drew a good performance from an orchestra little used to this repertoire.

The vocal quality was rather irregular, below par for the so-called first cast (Domingo apart), and more interesting with the second - or alternative - cast. The first Tamerlano was Monica Bacelli, who was very poorly suited to the demands of the role. The program says clearly that Tamerlano was written for a contralto or ( and this is my own opinion) a countertenor. A lyric mezzo soprano with a very small voice can never be strong enough for Tamerlano,  so MS Bacelli was a casting mistake, even though she was a consummate actress in this production. I am afraid that stage direction had a lot to do with this deficiency, as seems  more and more frequent: I had the opportunity to see  Bejun Mehta in this role and the difference is enormous. Swedish Ann Hallenberg  was making her debut in both role and theatre and she was a most pleasant surprise. She was a outstanding:  a good actress with genuinely spectacular diction, a good stage presence who sang with with good taste and expressiveness throughout, she shone in even the most difficult coloratura passages. Ms. Hallenberg is not a contralto, but she does have the vocal capacity to match the character perfectly.

The Bajazet was Plácido Domingo -  or Superman if  you wish,  since he  is clearly an exceptionally uncommon human being. I believe that this artist has nothing else to  demonstrate in the world of  opera, except for his interest in facing  new challenges. He is undoubtedly  on of the greatest artists in opera history and continues to be amazing in terms of his intensity and the state of his voice. Nobody could guess that he on his way to being 70 years old, simply from listening to him. Bajazet is not too demanding in terms of agility and  Superman does it with  dignity but obviously, amongst  a cast  of very small voices, he was also 'Supervoice' here. His interpretation of the death scene was the highlight of the evening, sung in a beautiful mezza voce and achieving the not easy task of moving the audience.

Texan tenor Bruce Ford was the alternative Bajazet and was as always, a reliable interpreter of the role. It is obviously unfair  to compare his voice with Domingo’s, but he was always convincing and proved to  be agood singer, once passed his first aria which gave him some difficulties.

Swedish Ingela Bohlin was  Asteria in the first cast, with a small  and pleasant voice, singing  better in the intimate passages and sounding rather forced in the more dramatic moments. Isabel Rey was  somehow disappointing in the second cast -  she is really not very credible in a role of a young girl. While the tessitura moves in the middle voice, she can sing  with taste and expressiveness, but her upper register is rather unpleasant, tight and shrill.

Sara Mingardo was the first cast  Andrónico, the Greek prince. It seems that she was born to sing sorrowful roles and she does it with exquisite taste but at reduced volume. It was not easy to distinguish her voice from Monica Bacelli’s either.  Irish Patricia Bardon was a very  good Andrónico in the second cast. Her voice is firm the middle range and she has no problems in coloratura, although there are some (few) open sounds in the upper register.

American Jennifer Holloway had a bigger voice than her colleagues in the first cast and she was a good Irene, although giving the impression that she may have problems in the higher ranges;  I await her Idamante in Bordeaux in May with some interest.  Croatian Renata Pokupic was the great  surprise in the second cast, having improved a lot since the last time I saw her in the same role three years ago. She now has  a beautiful voice and  gave a convincing performance both as an actress and as a singer. I can say little about  Luigi De Donato  except that he was an unbearable Leone in vocal terms.

The house was full for both performances. If in the first cast, the reaction of the audience was cold and polite  except  for Domingo,  for   the second cast there were clear successes for Ann Hallenberg, for Bardon, for Pokupic and for  Maestro McCreesh.

José Irurzun

Picture © Javier del Real

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