Review by Rodney Punt
The Tamerlano of history (aka “Timor the Lame”) was a 14th Century Mongol strongman to be reckoned with, his capital the legendary Samarkand. The last great nomadic leader, he was also an intellect and cultivator of the arts, bigger than life and ripe for stage treatment. Authors and composers duly complied, making much of his exploits for centuries after his whirlwind reign.
George Frideric Handel wrote his version of Tamerlano in a characteristic spurt of energy in just 24 days during July of 1724. One of a trio of his greatest operas written in succession, it comes after Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724, produced by LA Opera in 2001), and before Rodelinda (1725).
The most tragic of Handel’s stage works, Tamerlano's interior drama is sustained through dramatic recitative and short arioso. Musical numbers are prevailingly in the minor key. The orchestra’s woodwinds, with subdued string writing including two theorbos in the bass register, enforce somber coloration. (There isn’t a brass instrument to be found.) The reason for LA Opera’s mounting it now may, however, relate more to a fortunate historic convergence of opera politics and artistic second thoughts.
Handel had engaged the popular Italian Francesco Borosini for the role of Bajazet. The first superstar tenor in history (but certainly not the last), he brought with him another operatic setting of the same story that placed more importance on his own character. Handel bowed to Borosini's clout and incorporated dramatic elements of that setting into his own version, composing opera’s first leading tenor role, and, to the tenor's delight and those that followed him, a superlative death scene.
The Bajazet role sits comfortably in the range of the indefatigable Plácido Domingo. As a result, Tamerlano was revived, from 2008, as a star vehicle for the tenor-impresario, and shared between his two opera companies in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. The LA Opera incarnation was premiered last Saturday evening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in a minimalist production only sporadically inspired in design and direction, but well performed by a cast of six singers and Baroque orchestra under the direction of William Lacey.
The opera’s plot is a tangle of alienated affections, frustrated intentions, and mistaken motives. Tamerlano (Bejun Mehta) a haughty, cruel monarch has conquered and imprisoned Bajazet (Plácido Domingo), and is bent on winning the affections of his daughter, Asteria (Sarah Coburn) who is herself in love with Andronico, (Patricia Bardon, in a trouser role). Andronico, allied with Tamerlano, is in love with Asteria, but unaware of this Tamerlano attempts to bribe him for his help in winning Asteria for himself. Irene (Jennifer Holloway) wants to convince Tamerlano to love her. Leone (Ryan McKinny), seemingly a friend to all, intervenes. Things spin seriously out of control in various duels of wits and wills, especially between Tamerlano, who holds all the cards, and Bajazet, defeated, depressed, and worried about the fate of his much sought-after daughter.
Within its operatic conventions of coercive power pursuing a love interest, the opera has remarkable psychological truth. Hell-bent on gaining the affection of Asteria, emperor Tamerlano is held in check by a desire that his ardent love be returned of Asteria’s own free will. The mounting tension is relieved only with the death of the intransigent Bajazet, and Tamerlano’s subsequent realization of Irene’s true love for him, which in turn leads to the forgiveness of his remaining rivals and enemies. This Enlightenment era denouement was to anticipate that of Mozart’s frothy Abduction from the Seraglio by over half a century.
The LA Opera production is not quite up to the opera’s dramatic potential, however. Its stark, unimaginative set resembles a 20th Century fascistic bunker, a hackneyed concept by now. The expressionistic lighting alternates bright glare with deep shadows, but only sporadically to valid psychological effect. The vision is bleak. Later on a metallic field riser, two plain chairs, and a red curtain backdrop serve as a bare-bones throne for conquering greatness. The look overall is crisp, but also cheaply expedient.
Some of the staging is problematic. A dozen bully-boy military police stand around in clichéd configurations, overhearing secrets they should not hear, having only passing reaction to them, and finally not being present at the critical moment in Act III when Tamerlano orders them to move against his enemies. They initially suggest Mussolini-like thugs, but end up looking like the impotent Russian soldiers I saw standing around and lost in Berlin after the Wall was torn down, with no remaining mission to perform, but no housing to return to in the Motherland.
The victorious Tartars and allied Greeks, in modern black suit and dress, blend into the bland setting. By contrast, the defeated Bajazet wears a flowing Turkish gown that glimmers of red and gold satin, with cape to match, his daughter Asteria similarly if less spectacularly attired. The dress code suggests gray and black militarism snuffing out a colorful and humanistic old order, but it may also have something to do with a star tenor’s desire for audience attention.
The implacable Bajazet is already out of step with the other characters on stage. His role should be sympathetic. But modern psychology might also find his character a neurotic depressive, projecting the negativity of a defeated man on all those around him, most notably on his daughter. The production does nothing to soften this perception. His constant state of anger has him stomping off to the same stage-left door in each act, bestowing unintentional tedium to an already intransigent character. Our initial sympathies flag by the end of the third act, and his much threatened death comes as something of a relief at his final gasps.
There are amusing elements. With a countertenor singing the alpha-male role of Tamerlano, his rival Andronico a trouser role, and stage action emphasizing a sexless disguise for Irene, there was as much gender-ambiguity on the Chandler’s stage as a Halloween on Hollywood Boulevard. A distinguished gentleman sitting to the left of me couldn’t make heads or tails of who was supposed to be in love with whom. Imagine his confusion had he attended an authentic Baroque performance with all three roles sung by the original castrati. Fellini, where art thou?
In his 126th operatic role, Plácido Domingo seems destined to be, if not the world’s most adored tenor, certainly its most accomplished. He has sung in only one other Baroque opera in a long career, but Bajazet is a role uniquely appropriate for him. Domingo’s recent outing as a dramatic baritone in the title role of Simon Boccanegra should by all rights have left his 68-year-old vocal chords hardened and unready for Baroque coloratura. Understandably lacking some of the vocal dexterity of his colleagues, Domingo was, however, able to summon a plangent, brightened version of his tenor voice with enough agility to negotiate the demands of a role that emphasizes dramatic elements over pyrotechnics. Even as his energies dipped toward the end of the victory lap that the role of Bajazet represents for him, Domingo was up to the challenge, investing his performance with a young man’s intensity and commitment.
Domingo and company have assembled a first class set of singing actors as his foils, capable youngsters still approaching their career highs, none of whom were even born when he launched his professional career over forty years ago.
I have admired Bejun Mehta from his LA Opera performance in Giulio Cesare several seasons ago, where his dramatic countertenor eclipsed even the more famous David Daniels in the same opera. Here, in the title role, he reigns supreme in flourishing coloratura passages. Lithe and limber in dark suit and bald pate, he has the look and manner of Yul Brynner’s King of Siam, moving menacingly on little cat feet. He cold-heartedly rips pages from Bajazet’s books and then carefully cleans his fingers with a 15th Century equivalent of a Handi Wipe. His sadomasochistic behavior toward Asteria lends potency to his later fearsome revenge aria, but also makes his final relenting toward her something of a large leap in dramatic credibility.
Sarah Coburn’s Asteria was winning, a pure lyric soprano of lighter weight than the others, but flexible and expressive. Her scenes with Domingo rang emotionally true and provided some of the evenings most tender moments. Likewise, Patricia Bardon’s Andronico was intensely focused, dramatically and vocally, with a near show-stopper aria at the end of Act II, though her role resembles that of the powerless Ottavio in Don Giovanni.
Jennifer Holloway’s Irene was also vocally accomplished, her character a statuesque career girl in business suit, but the use of glasses as her full disguise raised some audience eyebrows. Leone's Ryan McKinny made the most of his single aria, and his staging was the one brilliant touch in an otherwise merely efficient movement of the cast. While originally conceived by Handel and Haym as a loyal supporter of the court, in this production he secretly pines for Tamerlano's Irene, and as an ambitious royal wannabe writhes around the empty throne.
LA Opera has had a good track record with Baroque opera, the aforementioned Giulio Cesare a solid success and its production of Monteverdi’s Incoronazione di Poppea a few seasons ago an outstanding one. While this production does not live up to those standards either scenically or dramatically, it is every bit their equal vocally.
Might there be a Rodelinda, that third great Handel opera, in the offing for a future season?
Music by George Frideric Handel
Text by Nicola Francesco Haym (from earlier operas)
Saturday, November 21, 2009 – 7:30 pm, LA Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles Music Center
Conductor, William Lacey
Director, Chas Rader-Shieber
Scenery and Costumes, David Zinn
Lighting, Christopher Akerlind
Stage Manager, Lyla Forlani
Tamerlano, Bejun Mehta, countertenor
Bajazet, Plácido Domingo, tenor
Asteria, Sarah Coburn, soprano
Andronico, Patricia Bardon, mezzo-soprano
Irene, Jennifer Holloway, mezzo-soprano
Leone, Ryan McKinny, bass-baritone
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