Saturday, March 20, 2010

Handel's Tamerlano

From Handel's Tamerlano (1724), the aria "Par che mi nasca in seno" sung by Nathalie Stutzmann:

The words are "Par che mi nasce in seno / un raggio di speranza / a consolarmi il cor. / Ma non contenta a pieno / del seno la constanza, / se l'agita il timor." (in English, "It seems to me that my breast has been pierced by a ray of hope that consoles my heart. But my heart cannot find true peace if it is still assailed by fear.")

Irene, Princess of Trebizond, has discovered that her betrothed, the Tatar conqueror Tamerlano, is pursuing Asteria, the daughter of his newly defeated enemy, the Ottomon sultan Bajazet. Tamerlano has just declared that he is going to make Asteria his empress. But after he leaves, Irene learns that Asteria does not love Tamerlano in return. This is when Irene sings of her heart's consolation.

A DVD of a performance of Tamerlano staged at the 2001 Händelfestspiele in Handel's birthplace, Halle an der Saale, has been released as Kultur DVD D4505. The production was directed by Jonathan Miller and performed by the English Concert conducted by Trevor Pinnock. The gorgeous costumes were created by Judy Levin for a production of Tamerlano at Glimmerglass Opera, and, along with Anna Bonitatibus' performance as Irene, are one of the most striking things about this production.

The opera is loosely based on Tamerlane's defeat and capture of the Ottoman sultan Bayezid in 1402. Bayezid died after a year as Tamerlane's prisoner, which leads to the first unusual feature of this opera: unlike most other Baroque operas, Tamerlano does not end happily. In the final act, filled with impotent rage and despair (harrowingly portrayed here by Tom Randle), Bajazet kills himself by taking poison. Tamerlano, moved by his enemy's death, then pardons Asteria for attempting to assassinate him (twice), and unites her with her lover, the Greek prince Andronico. The opera then ends with a brief final chorus in praise of love's light dispelling the darkness—only the chorus is in a minor key; the darkness lingers.

The role of Bajazet was originally written for Francesco Borosini, a tenor, which is another unusual aspect of Tamerlano. For most of opera's previous history, tenors had generally been consigned to roles as comic servants and/or lusty women of a certain age. Bajazet, though, is essentially the main character in Tamerlano (in fact, some versions of this libretto were staged under the title Bajazet instead).

Yet another unusual aspect of Tamerlano is the number of scenes that feature ensembles. There's an amazing moment midway through the second act where Asteria (Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz), unable to bear her father's reproaches, reveals to the assembled company her plan to kill Tamerlano on their wedding night. Irene, Andronico and Bajazet had all accused her of betraying them; now she turns to each of them and asks if they still consider her unworthy. As father and daughter are reconciled, the enraged Tamerlano issues dire threats and stalks off. Opera seria is a form built on the succession of solo arias, so this scene—with its rapid exchanges of recitative and arioso among five characters, and ending with a trio—is remarkable.

But it brings into focus some of the libretto's dramatic weaknesses as well. From this point in the opera until the end, Tamerlano seems to do little but appear onstage periodically, threaten Asteria and Bajazet with death by various gruesome means, and then disappear again. It doesn't help that Tamerlano is sung by the beautiful Monica Bacelli. A fake moustache does not a warrior king make, and rage arias don't really show her voice to best advantage.

Another dramatic weakness is that the primo uomo (originally the great castrato Senesino) is Andronico, an ally of Tamerlano who is asked to convey his offer of marriage to Asteria—but Andronico is himself in love with Asteria. This is a situation that was handled more compellingly in Handel's earlier Flavio (1723). And while Andronico has the greatest number of arias, he doesn't have much to do besides hover on the edges of the main drama that is unfolding among Tamerlano, Asteria, and Bajazet. Not only do Andronico's many arias tend to kill the dramatic momentum, they are sung here by Graham Pushee, a countertenor whose voice I found thin and inexpressive. (Perhaps it would have been better if Bacelli and Pushee had switched roles.) And while Pushee's Andronico gets more arias than are really welcome, one of the most compelling singers in this production, Bonitatibus, doesn't even have an aria after the second act.

So taken as a whole Tamerlano doesn't quite achieve the dramatic or musical heights of the other operas that Handel produced between February 1724 and February 1725, Giulio Cesare (1724) and Rodelinda (1725). But it contains much excellent music, and its peak moments—Irene's lyrical aria, the Act II revelation scene, and Bajazet's death—are among Handel's greatest creations for the stage.

Update 24 March 2010: The Royal Opera's production of Tamerlano with Kurt Streit as Bajazet, Christianne Stotijn as Tamerlano, Sara Mingardo as Andronico, Christine Schäfer as Asteria and Renata Pokupic as Irene has just concluded its run, and the critics were not kind. In the Sunday Times Hugh Canning savaged Ivor Bolton's "limp conducting" and Schäfer's "threadbare tone and sagging pitch"; "beyond pitiful" was the kindest thing he had to say about Stotijn's singing. Canning did, however, single out Renata Pokupic for her "radiant singing." In a more measured review in the Guardian, Tim Ashley praised Kurt Streit's "intelligent, deeply felt performance" (Streit was in the difficult position of taking over the role of Bajazet from the hospitalized Plácido Domingo), and described Sara Mingardo's singing as "glorious," but wrote that otherwise this revival of Graham Vick's 2001 production was "often dispiriting in the extreme."

The reasons for the critics' dismay aren't apparent from the video preview provided by the Royal Opera House, which sounds ravishing. But while it's difficult to make judgments from recordings, it does seem that Pokupic has a big, fruity mezzo-soprano that probably carries better in a large house. Handel's theaters were only about a third the size of modern opera houses, where singers with lighter voices may sound underpowered.

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