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Notes from the 2012 Salzburg Festival ( 2 )

Georg Friedrich Händel • Tamerlano

The plot of Handel’s 1724-premiered Tamerlano is silly enough not to merit a production (or else it would have to be a superlatively clever one); the music good enough to merit live performances. A concert version then seems a good compromise to get the music to the people and stay within the budget. That’s what the 2012 Salzburg Festival does this year with Tamerlano –and also with Mozart’s Il re pastore, equally forgettable re. plot, but without the musical merit of the Handel. The successful concert-performance recipe calls for studding the baroque opera in question with big and quality names to make sure the people actually are coming. A good amount did come to a filled, hardly full, Grosses Festspielhaus on Thursday: those in the know for Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens de Louvre, those preferring star-power and name recognition for the aging, still rather fabulous Plácido Domingo as Ottoman King Bajazet (Bayezid I).

He first performed the role, his 130th-something, in Madrid in 2008 (reviewed by José MªIrurzun for S&H) and reprised it in Washington (reviewed by CDT), to the mild, well-meaning, and respectful reception he deserves. He does what he does, judiciously and well, just by bringing himself to the table—or music stand, as it were—and benefits most from the concert set-up. His authority and presence are his primary, sole dramatic tools; they suffice to be impressive and don’t need directing. The voice is ever unmistakably Domingo: that of a Spanish-Central American honey bear, darkening with age.

available at Amazon
G.F.Handel, Tamerlano,
Paul McCreesh / Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid
M.Bacelli, P.Domingo, S.Mingardo, J.Holloway...
Direction G.Vick
Opus Arte DVD

available at Amazon
G.F.Handel, Tamerlano,
George Petrou / Orchestra of Patras
N.Spanos, M.Katsuli et al.

It didn’t help, though, that he sang into the score most of the time, just as he wasn’t always helped by Marc Minkowski’s tempos, which the conductor mercilessly pressed on to the point of riding roughshod over Domingo’s abilities. That brought disarray to the arietta “No, no, il tuo sdegno mi placò” when Domingo and his accompanying bassoons were out of sync, but it also absolutely made the earlier aria “Ciel e terra armi di sdegno” which became irresistible through the drive that conductor and his eager band established. It made plenty white haired heads bop with giddy excitement, and Domingo cashed in on the glory.

Tamerlano (Timur) was such a famously brutal, tyrannical Mongol ruler that he made the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet, not an outspoken friend of European civilization, look like an enlightenment ruler even in an 18th century operatic plot. The titular role wasn’t always the most important part of the opera, but it is now, and it went to Bejun Mehta. Mehta has a creepy swagger about him, one that matches the character of Tamerlano, except it’s Mehta’s go-to mannerism on stage whatever the role. There isn’t one emotion that comes across believable through his gestures and mimicry; everything feels a little fake and mechanical, a little strangely self-assured… and it’s only gotten more pronounced since I saw him in Handel’s Orlando (Washington Concert Opera, 2006). In Tamerlano he had two things going for him, though: Primarily his clear, authoritative-enough voice, which sounds terrific throughout the middle register, and hugely impressive at its best (a brilliant “Sento la gioia”!), perfectly capable at its least.

He also benefitted from the Andronico of the night, his counter tenor counterpart, Franco Fagioli. If you close your eyes, Fagioli has a fine, wide timbered voice with a particularly good lower register, just a little on the compressed and artificial side. But open your eyes and he becomes a dramatic liability even in a concert performance. His contortions and facial expression give him an air, a gale!, of the highly ridiculous, of the unintentionally comical and sadly-embarrassing. To imagine this involuntary clown be a successful warrior and credible lover of the coveted Asteria (daughter of Bajazet, betrothed to Tamerlano) stretched the degree of suspension of disbelief that even a baroque opera dare ask for.

Left were the ladies and the very minor part of Leone, very majorly navigated by the redoubtable Michael Volle. And the ladies—Asteria and the original bride-to-be of Tamerlano, Irene—were genuine highlights. Julia Lezhneva, the pretty child-woman discovered and rightly championed by Minkowski, can stand still and convey more emotion than the entire male cast combined. And she has a voice that fills the entire Festspielhaus with seemingly effortless, voluminous beauty. It’s a comfortable voice, dulled just enough never to be piercing, much less shrill, easy on the ears despite or because of its strength. She has the same command over her voice at all dynamic levels and if not every attack is perfectly precise, it matters not a whit to the already-charmed listener. Marianne Crebassa’s Irene, singing the soprano version of the role, has a much fiercer, instantly memorable instrument, a voice on the prowl, a darkly seductive, sultry soprano whose slight haze in her first bits was soon gone. Her bleating trills smelled a little of wet wool, but subtly so.

Remains the undisputed star of the performance, the one that made the opera’s lengths—especially when the increasingly ridiculous plot, interrupted by stunning arias and gorgeous duets, bumbles toward the end—feel considerably less long: Les Musiciens du Louvre Grenoble, whose every note was filled with spirit and energy, who were relentless, who injected humor and wit (not the least thanks to the head of the continuo group, harpsichordist Francesco Corti), who proved agile and never hectic. They left little to no breathing room for the music to bloom, but then they also didn’t leave room – opportunity – risk (you pick) to nap away for a bit.

Pictures courtesy Salzburg Festival, © Silvia Lelli