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Tamerlano @ WNO

Plácido Domingo in Tamerlano, Washington National Opera, 2008, photo by Karin Cooper
Plácido Domingo (Bajazet) in Tamerlano, Washington National Opera, 2008 (photo by Karin Cooper)
For a few years, reports have been coming from Europe of major opera houses pairing up with historically informed performance (HIP) ensembles to present Baroque operas: Le Concert Spirituel in Montpellier, Christophe Rousset in Drottningholm, Les Talens Lyriques in Toulouse, Les Arts Florissants in Lyon, Concerto Vocale in Paris. Such residencies combine the staging power of a full-time opera company, as well as major opera singers, with the musical specialization of a well-established early music group and its regular conductor. Washington National Opera experimented with Baroque opera in the previous two decades by staging a couple Handel operas (Semele in 1980, 1983, and 1994; Agrippina in 1991; Julius Caesar in 1999) but without great success. The new production of Handel's Tamerlano (see the rehearsal blog) may not exactly reproduce the European model, as has been repeatedly suggested to the company here at Ionarts, but it gets many things right.

The Ottoman emperor Bayezid I once boasted that his horse would use the Throne of St. Peter as its manger, an anecdote related by Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Bayezid's fatal battle with the Tartar emperor Timur Lenk in 1402 has been recounted numerous times. Both Christopher Marlowe (Tamburlaine, 1588) and Jean Racine (Bajazet, 1672) made the story into plays, and not long after that operas were being staged that told versions of the final downfall of the proud sultan. Stories of Bayezid's humiliation while he was Timur Lenk's prisoner -- Timur used him as a footstool, kept him caged like an animal, made his wife dance naked for his court -- and resultant suicide from despair are probably apocryphal, but they make for great drama. It is a strange twist of fate that in Italy, directly threatened by Bayezid I and the Ottomans, opera should largely depict him as a sympathetic figure.

David Daniels (Tamerlano) and Sarah Coburn (Asteria) in Tamerlano, Washington National Opera, 2008 (photo by Karin Cooper)
David Daniels (Tamerlano) and Sarah Coburn (Asteria) in Tamerlano, Washington National Opera, 2008 (photo by Karin Cooper)
Handel composed Tamerlano (HWV 18, premiered in London in 1724) in the same year as he worked on Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda. His librettist, Nicola Francesco Haym, adapted Piovene Agostino's libretto, also used by Vivaldi a few years later in Bajazet. This production uses the 1731 revision of Handel's score (that link is to the old Handel-Werke edition, 1876), with significant cuts that reduced the evening to a total of only three and a half hours, with two intermissions. Even so, the unfamiliar opera and the unfamiliar sounds (countertenor David Daniels, theorbos, harpsichord) combined with the length to drive many in Wednesday night's audience home early. Little matter that even the Metropolitan Opera has had countertenors appear on its stage, that David Daniels is one of the best known countertenors in the world at the moment, that Baroque opera is a craze everywhere, sectors of the Washington audience quickly lost interest. It says more about them than the strength of either the work or this remarkable production.

According to a preview article by Anne Midgette earlier this week, we have David Daniels to thank for it, because he suggested the opera to Domingo. Of the cast of six, Daniels was the only singer who truly felt at home in this music, comfortable with its extravagant demands for florid singing, with its embellishments. Although he is not one of my favorite countertenors, he was in excellent voice and nailed the loathsome arrogance of the title role. Only in his big aria in Act III did some threads show, at least until he had convinced conductor William Lacey to move the orchestra at the faster pace he wanted. Andronico, the more important castrato role created by Handel's bête noire Senesino, was entrusted to mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, who also sang with Domingo in his Madrid debut of the role. In her Washington debut, she displayed an athletic, robust voice with incisive color, with what sounded like an aborted cadenza in her first aria as the only misstep.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Domingo, a Lion in Winter in 'Tamerlano' (Washington Post, May 2)

Tim Smith, Domingo delivers 'Tamerlano' (Baltimore Sun, May 2)

Allan Kozinn, Amid the Baroque and the Bluster, Love Blossoms (New York Times, May 2)

Dominic McHugh, Handel: Tamerlano (Musical Criticism, May 1)

Idle Thoughts (Out West Arts, May 1)
Domingo, costumed in bright robes reminiscent of his turn in The First Emperor (costumes by David Zinn), was a compelling Bajazet by his presence. He had a few memory slips in this new role, also noted by Hugh Canning at the Madrid debut, but the éminence grise of the opera world towered in stature over the rest of the cast. Domingo struck a regal figure as the defeated sovereign, making his suicide scene terrifying and tragic to behold. He is still in incredibly impressive voice, although his handling of the Baroque line can hardly be called idiomatic. Soprano Sarah Coburn was a vision as Asteria, causing many a gasp of admiration when she appeared in a wedding gown for the marriage scene. Vocally she had a rough start, but her nerves settled except for a bit of a neurotic buzz at the edge of her tone. Andrew Foster-Williams received big ovations as Leone, for his accurate and resonant singing, but also perhaps just because the audience was so relieved to hear the bass vocal register for a change. Claudia Huckle, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, was a bitchy Irene, but her breath support and overall ease in the role were limited, causing some intonational ambiguity.

The production, directed by Chas Rader-Shieber, seemed to have been modeled on some of the minimalist stagings common for Baroque opera in Europe. The sets and costumes by David Zinn placed the story in an unspecified autocratic state, the interiors of a stark white marble Italian fascist palazzo policed by immobile Gestapo lookalikes. Tamerlano and his often unwilling ally Andronico were costumed in plain gray suits, against which only the exotic colors of Bajazet and his daughter Asteria provided any relief. Lighting by Christopher Akerlind provided a sense of the progress of time in each act, from morning brilliance to dusky evening. It was ugly, but few fascist regimes are known for their aesthetic tastes.

Plácido Domingo (Bajazet) in Tamerlano, Washington National Opera, 2008 (photo by Karin Cooper)
Plácido Domingo (Bajazet) in Tamerlano, Washington National Opera, 2008 (photo by Karin Cooper)
If anything, it allowed us to focus on Handel's score, which has some exquisite moments, especially in the second and third acts. The small orchestra, raised up on a platform so that we could hear the gentle timbres of harpsichord and two theorbos (their necks jutting up into the stage sight lines), played with stylistic sensitivity and unity, especially the oboes, bassoons, and flutes. Conductor William Lacey seems to be favored for this sort of work, although he had the same stuck-in-the-mud manner here as he did in Santa Fe, something like an agitated marionnette trapped in coagulating molasses. As Michael also noted last season at Santa Fe, his awkward gesture does not seem to communicate effectively with the players, leading to some ragged openings of phrases especially.

The direction of the singers was generally strong, playing the story for its drama instead of resorting to distanced irony. The only exception was the ending of the opera, which caused many in the audience to laugh as Tamerlano suddenly changed direction after Bajazet's suicide. One must blame Rader-Shieber for that stupid laughter, since by having Daniels simply sit by as Bajazet died made the transition more ridiculous than it should have been. Suddenly, he stood up and was emotionally overcome, which did not make sense. If he were listening to the death scene and moved by it as much as we in the audience, the lieto fine would ring much less false.

Handel's Tamerlano will be repeated on May 2, 4, 12, 20, and 22, in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Good luck finding a ticket.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Here in South Florida, FGO is currently reviving a production of Julius Ceasar (that's how they advertise it). The first time around they headlined Daniels; now they're giving the ad space to Cleo (of course). However, they retain two countertenors in the production.