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Tamerlano from Madrid

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Handel, Tamerlano, P. Domingo, M. Bacelli, S. Mingardo, J. Holloway, Teatro Real de Madrid, P. McCreesh

(released on April 28, 2009)
Opus Arte OP 1006 D

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Plácido Domingo continues to take on new roles in a career that may be slowing but has not yet stopped. One of the best of the most recent roles was a sympathetic portrayal of the Ottoman emperor Bajazet, in Handel's Tamerlano, debuted at Madrid's Teatro Real last year. We had the chance to hear Domingo in this opera at Washington National Opera shortly afterward, albeit in a less interesting production. The stylish but quirky one directed by Graham Vick for Madrid has now been released on DVD. Hugh Canning, in a live review of the Madrid staging, aptly described Domingo's take on the role of Bajazet as "Lear-like," as the aged ruler imprisoned and humiliated by the Tartar emperor Timur Lenk. Domingo may not have fully memorized the role and his handling of Baroque musical demands may have left something to be desired, but in his inimitable way Domingo inhabited this role and made it pack quite an emotional punch.

Vick created the production for the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino earlier in the decade, and its stylish minimalism reminds one of the Willy Decker La Traviata or the Alden brothers' Baroque stagings. The basic backdrop is a gently curved wall, starkly white, with some pieces that rotate almost unnoticed, around the top of the wall where supernumerary figures appear and a small circle on stage. Above the stage for much of the production hovers a large white globe, under which Bajazet first appears, crushed but slowly lifting it upward. The imagery of Atlas may be what Vick had in mind, but the meaning is more likely related to the enormous sculpted foot that forces the globe back down from the top, bringing to mind the footstool image -- Timur Lenk was rumored to have forced his royal prisoner to serve as his footstool, a story that Handel's libretto recalls when Tamerlano tries to make Asteria to step on her humiliated father to ascend to the throne as his bride. It was a common humiliation applied to foes in the Middle East: even the God of the Old Testament promised to do it to the enemies of the Hebrews:
Dixit Dominus Domino meo, sede a dextris meis: donec ponam inimicos tuos scabellum pedum tuorum.

The Lord said to my lord, sit on my right: while I shall place your enemies as a stool for your feet. (Psalm 110:1)
Some of the brightly colored costumes and turbans at times are a nod to the Mughals, the dynasties descended from Timur Lenk's Persianization of Afghanistan and northern India, with Irene even arriving in Act I on an enormous blue elephant. Mostly, however, the staging is a neutral backdrop, which misses the point of Baroque opera, in which really incredible singers mostly stood in place and sang difficult, pyrotechnical music in lavish sets and costumes, complete with incredible set effects. Vick also directs the singers in some particularly stylized, often insipid actions (the "high school show choir" hand movements that Peter Sellars also inflicts on his singers), especially Monica Bacelli's otherwise vocally splendid Tamerlano. The singing is quite good, although the Washington cast was in some ways better: Ingela Bohlin's shining if not immaculate Asteria was on par with Sarah Coburn, while Sara Mingardo's loamy voice and intense stage presence were bettered by Patricia Bardon's Andronico. Most of all, David Daniels nailed the loathsome arrogance of Tamerlano much more than Monica Bacelli, who was above all just not that convincingly male in her movement (an alto castrato created the role, after all).

Ingela Bohlin (Asteria) and Sara Mingardo (Andronico), Act III duet
(Vivo in te) from Tamerlano, Teatro Real, directed by Graham Vick

Where the Madrid production convincingly beats what we heard in Washington is the sound of the orchestra, because of the presence of a real Handel authority, conductor Paul McCreesh, in the pit. His strings and wind players are members of the resident band, the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, but he brought in his continuo group (harpsichord, Baroque cello, and theorbo) from the Gabrieli Consort to add some specialist touches (plus traversi and recorders, although apparently not played by specialists). The performance does not follow the newest critical score of HWV 18 but mixes in some of the music from other versions of the score (a couple recitatives and one of Asteria's arias cut from Act II, and similar cuts in Act III, but with Su la sponda added and the concluding scene after Bajazet's suicide). McCreesh explains the version of the score, chosen mostly by Vick and not necessarily what McCreesh would have used otherwise, in a short interview added here as bonus material. Even for three DVDs the price is steep, but the value of this production as a document in one of the most distinguished operatic singing careers, now drawing near its close, speaks for itself.


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