Handel: Tamerlano

The Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 8 March 2010 2 stars

TamerlanoEmerging from the Royal Opera House after four and a half hours of the much-hyped, long-awaited Tamerlano, the absence of Domingo was the very least of many disappointments. Ill-conceived and poorly executed, Graham Vick's production is as monochrome as its colour scheme: a tragedy in all the wrong ways.

While English National Opera has been quietly establishing a reputation for innovative Handel productions solidly performed – in recent years we've had David McVicar's Alcina, David Alden's Ariodante and last year Christopher Alden's delightful Partenope – Covent Garden has been lagging behind, with Francisco Negrin's Orlando the only memorable new offering. This production of Tamerlano therefore was more than just a vehicle for a star tenor, it was a chance for the Royal Opera to join the fashionable Handel movement, and show young pretenders ENO, Glyndebourne and ETO what could be done with a big stage and even bigger budget.

It is this scope and scale that may have been the opera's undoing. The first mistake was one of casting. The desire to compete musically on an international level is understandable, and gaining the potential participation of Domingo was a coup not to be turned down; yet when it came to the rest of the cast substantial home-grown talent was rejected in favour of international singers, who in the event proved themselves almost universally overfaced and unequal to the music's demands. Among mezzo-sopranos alone the UK boasts more than its fair share of top-flight Handelians – Alice Coote, Sarah Connolly, Patricia Bardon are just the beginning – so to cast the almost entirely untried Christianne Stotijn (Tamerlano) and talented but volume-lacking Sara Mingardo (Andronico) seems wilful at best.

The opera itself is an interesting one. Adequately supplied with good tunes, it is in dramatic and structural terms that Tamerlano really gains ground against other Handel works. Rejecting the positive resolution and traditional lieto fine that so jars in Rodelinda or Alcina, the opera instead presents a rather serious and convincing study in power, ambition and love, and the relationship between all these forces. All this would surely seem ripe material for a contemporary production, providing the psychological depth so often lacking Handel's heroes. Yet rather than exploit the interior emotional journey and development of these genuinely complex characters, Vick has chosen to dramatise the music with a collection of stock gestures and a miming chorus of beturbaned eunuchs that ties his actors' hands – or, rather, occupies them in a series of facile gestures that wouldn't be out of place in a family game of charades – and keeps them from any independent characterisation. The single feature dominating the stage throughout is a suspended globe, crushed under a giant foot; as a metaphor it's not a subtle one, yet this is the level we are operating at. Symbols, ciphers and stock-characters abound, provoking audience laughter in scenes that have the potential to be genuinely emotive. That the set is beautiful is undeniable, yet for all its stark appeal it remains oddly incidental – a frame, in the most disconnected and old-fashioned sense, for the faintly exotic action.

With a plot less convoluted than most, the action is built around two rival leaders – Tamerlano the barbarian usurper, and Bajazet the overthrown and captive Sultan. Tamerlano, in true Bond villain fashion devises a series of increasingly elaborate humiliations and punishments for Bajazet and his captive daughter Asteria, without ever getting round to the actual business of killing or marrying either. Add Tamerlano's rejected bride-to-be Irene and Asteria's young lover Andronico as you have a full cast.

It's a perfectly adequate plot, yet not one that can (or is designed) to sustain just under four hours of music. Ego issues, courtesy of Senesino and the tenor Borosini, provoked Handel into multiple writings and re-writings of this score, leaving behind quite a collection of alternative and additional music. Not only does this production eschew almost any cuts, but it actively brings together music from different editions, creating – especially in the last act – a massive structural imbalance of proportions, and an opera that more than overstays its welcome.

Although all was crisp and energetic in Ivor Bolton's pit, vocally the production was suffering some serious teething problems, which one can only hope will be sorted out during the run. Kurt Streit's Bajazet grew from an uneven start into a charismatic and secure final act. The dark, almost baritonal quality of his lower register worked well in characterising this mature hero, although occasionally (like so much else) risked being lost beneath the orchestra. His big accompagnato in Act II was a highlight in a production in which the acres of recitative were too often treated simply as a functional means of getting from A to B, rather than as dramatic content in its own right. Christianne Stotijn as the titular anti-hero was simply not equal to the part, either dramatically or vocally. She was perhaps the greatest victim of Vick's staging, placed on several occasions at the very back of the stage for low-lying arias. Already struggling with volume and some alarmingly pronounced gear-shifts in and out of chest-voice, she stood no chance once so far behind the proscenium. I was seated in the balcony, but was still really struggling to hear much of Stotijn and of Mingardo (Andronicus), and can only imagine that up in the amphitheatre things were all but inaudible. Playing to the lower two tiers has become too common a feature of baroque opera at the Royal Opera House – Cavalli's La Calisto also involved an awful lot of aural imagination at the back.

The decision to cast two mezzos in the male roles (in addition to the two sopranos as the opera's women) led to a certain lack of tonal variety. Mingardo did her best with the rather wet Andronicus, and produced some moments of beautifully articulated coloratura towards the end, but was for the most part simply not loud enough, lacking the piercing quality that a counter tenor might bring to that difficult mid-register in which the role seems perpetually to sit. As Asteria, Christine Shafer was perhaps the evening's biggest disappointment. With a voice that sounded tired and worn, her singing was plagued with major intonation issues and a ragged impurity of tone that had no place in the glorious tunes that Handel writes for his heroine. Fortunately compensation was at hand in the form of Renata Pokupic's Irene – the evening's standout vocal performance. A masterclass in both characterisation and projection, she was as foxily seductive as she was worldy-wise, despite being forced to share her most glorious aria with a giant blue elephant, on whose jerkily-moving back she was precariously perched. In the token bass role of henchman Leone, Vito Priante was also strong –  if criminally underused, the victim of one of the opera's few major cuts.

This is not a success of a production, either musically or dramatically; but if it condemns Tamerlano to another stay of rest in the archives – which it seems likely to do – it will be a real shame. This is an opera filled with potential, and one that deserves a fair hearing with a contemporary audience. This however does not promise to be it.

By Alexandra Coghlan



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