Handel’s Tamerlano: Well Sung and Played but Lacking in Drama

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Handel: Il Pomo d’Oro/Maxim Emelyanychev (conductor), Barbican Hall, London 10.11.2015 (CS)

Handel: Tamerlano

Tamerlano – Xavier Sabata
Andronico – Max Emanuel Cencic
Bajazet – John Mark Ainsley
Asteria – Julia Lezhneva
Irene – Romina Basso
Leone – Pavel Kudinov

Handel’s Tamerlano was first given in London in 1724, appearing between Giulio Cesare (February 1724) and Rodelinda (February 1725).  The libretto – an adaptation by Nicolo Haym from two earlier Italian libretti – presents an account of the treatment of the defeated Ottoman Sultan Bajazet, by his war-mongering captor Tamerlano, who has fallen in love with Asteria, Bajazet’s daughter.  Unfortunately, Asteria is devoted to the conqueror’s reluctant ally, the Greek prince Andronico, while Tamerlano himself is engaged to Irene.  But Tamerlano is used to getting his own way, so he plans to pass Irene on to Andronico and asks the latter to plead his suit to Asteria.  Amid these romantic complications there is further confusion, as Bajazet misinterprets his daughter’s two unsuccessful attempts to kill Tamerlano, and accuses her of forsaking her father and succumbing to his hated enemy.  Similarly, when Tamerlano tells Asteria that Andronico will assent to their marriage, as Tamerlano has promised to restore him to his Greek throne and give him the Princess of Trebsidond, Asteria accuses Andronico of treachery.

Thus, conflicts brew and swirl among this close-knit group of characters, a conflict which is essentially a battle of minds as the obdurate Bajazet determines to prevent the equally unyielding Tamerlano from marrying Asteria, even if it costs him his life.  The drama, which takes place within a short time and in confined spaces, builds with claustrophobic intensity: there are no extraneous sub-plots.  Everything in this unremittingly dark opera builds steadily and logically towards its climax: the suicide of Bajazet.

Il Pomo d’Oro’s performance of Tamerlano at the Barbican Hall, however, was decidedly lacking in drama.  There is no reason why a concert performance of the opera should not communicate its relentless tragic trajectory: for Handel presents us with a series of compelling, psychologically convincing musical portraits.  On this occasion, though, there was little dramatic connection between the protagonists, who sang while pretty much glued to their scores and made little eye-contact with each other.  Worse still, singers left and returned to the stage with alarming regularity, fracturing the momentum of the narrative; moreover, characters’ absences from the platform during numbers when others spoke of them, further weakened the dramatic credibility.

Conductor Maxim Emelyanychev’s concern to highlight every small detail at the expense of the whole did not help either.  The excessive theatricality of the young Russian’s gestures was distracting and inappropriate – and unnecessary: he had a talented team before him, well capable of responding to Handel’s nuances without the need for a sledge-hammer approach.  Someone should advise Emelyanychev that less is more; and that his leaping and prancing was irritatingly noisy.  Proceedings were further slowed by the singers’ practice, encouraged by Emelyanychev, of pausing at the end of each aria to acknowledge applause, when what was needed was a swift succession of escalating emotions.  Then there were the extended re-tunings between the Acts, with leader Jonas Zschenderlein wandering about the ensemble to offer his A to each section in turn.

The recitatives were ponderous, and so the outpourings of emotion in the arias seemed disconnected to the ‘business’ related between them, a discontinuity increased by the cutting of quite a lot of the recitative (and, as a result, the occasional jumbling of the surtitles).  Emelyanychev’s own continuo playing was often overly ornate (there were two harpsichords), though the cello and double bass showed musical intelligence and expressiveness. The performance lasted over three and a half hours; I longed for a greater dramatic sweep.

Fortunately, there was much excellent singing and music-making to admire.  As Bajazet, John Mark Ainsley’s fury may not have had quite enough explosiveness – and he wasn’t helped by Emelyanychev’s high-octane approach – but he imbued the low lying tenor part with darkness, and the fluidity of the recitatives and arioso in the climactic final scenes confirmed the seething uncontrollability of Bajazet’s emotions.  As he called down the Furies, his promise that his haunting spirit would return from the grave powerfully conveyed Bajazet’s feverishly implacability. With the greatest tenderness, Ainsley bid his daughter goodbye.  Having taken the poison which Asteria intended for Tamerlano, Bajazet weakens as it seeps and spreads through his body, and Ainsley’s final soliloquy fragmented and faded spell-bindingly.  It was movingly apparent why some may consider this grand scena to be one of the most powerfully dramatic scenes in all Baroque opera.

Xavier Sabata was also convincing as Tamerlano.  Perhaps he might have given Tamerlano’s unpredictability and madness an even more ‘psychotic’ edge – sometimes his immaculate tone was rather too ravishing – but his rich, full countertenor possessed a fitting glint of nastiness, and his formal vengeance aria bubbled with murderous rage.  Sabata also made more than most of the recitatives; the petulance and foolishness of the eponymous tyrant were skilfully communicated.

Sabata’s countertenor contrasted neatly with the more gentle expressiveness of Max Emanuel Cencic.  Cencic showed his agility in Andronico’s ostentatious arias (the role was originally written for Senesino), but impressed most in his first three arias, in which Andronico expresses his love for Asteria and his despair at the prospect of losing her: these sorrowful lamentations were heart-melting. Cencic employed quite elaborate ornamentation, which at times added elegance, elsewhere seemed overly fussy.

Reviewing Julia Lezhneva’s performance as Trasimede in Vivaldi’s L’Oracolo in Messenia, with Europa Galante at the Barbican in February this year, I remarked her ‘astonishing vocal pyrotechnics’ which were ‘flawlessly delivered with superb breath control, unfailingly sweetness and crystalline brightness’.  I noted, however, that ‘it is perhaps churlish to remark that it was both effortless and rather ‘empty’, especially given the technical demands and the concert-hall context; but the contrast with the engaging interactions of the other cast members was notable’.  These misgivings were even more apposite here.  Lezhneva needed much more opulence to convey Asteria’s wide-ranging emotions.  Asteria is by turns mournfully wistful and resolutely defiant – perhaps both at once when, forced to give either her father or lover the poisoned chalice, she avoids the choice and drinks it herself.  But, Lezhneva’s soprano was colourless, and while this absence of tints and warmth may have mattered less in Trasimede’s fiendish coloratura, Asteria’s lingering, melancholy reflections lacked expressive depth.  Sustained notes were just that: there was no variety of hue, no relaxed manipulation of the phrasing.  Once again the rapid fireworks sparkled, but the virtuosic outbursts made little sense in terms of the characterisation as elsewhere Asteria’s feistiness was not conveyed.

As Irene, who loves Tamerlano with constancy and bravely thwarts Asteria’s attempt to kill him, Romina Basso demonstrated far greater dramatic engagement and musical forthrightness.  Pavel Kudinov’s role as Leone, Andronico’s confidant, was reduced to just a single aria, and even that was foreshortened; but Kudinov delivered it well and relished its floridity.

The orchestral colouring of Tamerlano is more subdued than that of Handel’s other operas – there are no horns or trumpets for example, but Il Pomo d’Oro were alert to every nuance of timbre and the varied orchestral colours complemented Handel’s vocal portraits well.

So, this performance did offer many musical rewards.  But Il Pomo d’Oro recorded Tamerlano in 2014 – with Karina Gauvin taking the role of Asteria, and Ruxandra Donose as Irene, conducted by Riccardo Minasi (Naive V5373 – review) – and, given the absence of drama in the Barbican Hall, one might as well have stayed at home and listened to the CD.

Claire Seymour

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