Handel: Tamerlano

Washington National Opera

Kennedy Center, Washington DC , 1 May 2008 3 stars

Placido Domingo and Sarah Coburn in Tamerlano: Karin Cooper (credit)More than forty years after his American debut, opera superstar Placido Domingo shows few signs of slowing down. Just over a month ago in Madrid he added the role of Bajazet in Handel's Tamerlano to his repertoire, a rare foray into Baroque territory for him.

Only a few weeks later, he has brought the work to Washington Opera, one of the two American companies of which he is General Director, and in spite of the relative unfamiliarity of the piece, the entire run is sold out.

However, the opening night performance had a curious lack of fire about it, and whilst nearly all the singers had their moments, it was difficult not to feel that Handel had been ill served. Tamerlano is amongst the composer's finest achievements and was written during a remarkably fertile period when he also created Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda; Tamerlano took just three weeks to compose. The libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym is one of many theatrical treatments of the tale of the Turkish bandit Tamerlano, another famous example being Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine, and the sombre tragedy inspired some of Handel's most intense and poignant music.

Washington Opera has elected to use the 1731 version of the score rather than the 1724 original. The revision involves the removal of a large amount of recitative and the terzetto, and the addition of an aria for Leone, which overall cuts down the running time down to about three and a half hours (with two intervals) and gives an important character more to sing: a wise choice, overall.

I'm afraid, however, that Chas Rader-Shieber's new production is not at all to my taste (the Madrid audience saw a production by Graham Vick that will be brought to Covent Garden with Domingo the season after next). The concept was too vague to be easily understood (and going by the conversations I overheard during the interval, much of the audience didn't understand it at all). Members of the Gestapo stood around in the background doing nothing for most of the evening while the main characters wore modern suits, with the exception of the aging sultan Bajazet, who wore a brightly-coloured exotic robe (probably intended to represent his relationship to the 'old order' rather than Tamerlano's new kingdom). The set offered the singers very little: windows to one side let through shafts of light, while a wall with a door at the back completed the main part of the set for the first two acts. In the second act, a makeshift stage with a royal red curtain behind it was constructed by the soldiers for Tamerlano and his bride-to-be to sit on, one of the production's more arresting moments; the final act provided only a table, with a red-lit background and a row of soldiers with their backs to the audience to the rear of the stage. In short, the production had very little to say about the work; there was little understanding of the humorous elements of the opera, nor the gravity of its Enlightenment messages, and too often the singers seemed at a loss as to know what to do or how to act during their extensive da capo arias.

Musically, too, there was a sense that all was not as it could have been. Conductor William Lacey worked hard all evening to keep the stage and pit together but there were numerous moments where the singers diverged from the tempi set by the orchestra and there was a strange absence of warmth about the singing and playing (not helped by the dry acoustic of the opera house). All praise to the orchestra for embracing Baroque-period techniques and bringing verve to the orchestral episodes, but I felt that by comparison with performances of Handel operas conducted by William Christie and Charles Mackerras I have seen in recent times, this Tamerlano short-changed Handel on the angularity, the wit and the humanity with which he infused this and all his great works.

David Daniels as Tamerlano: Karin Cooper (credit)Two of the singers stood out from all the others, especially when they were united in their final duet together (here they achieved a rare moment of Handelian sensuality). Patricia Bardon has an instinctive understanding of this music and also knows how to play a trouser role with conviction; here she made Andronico the cornerstone of the plot and sang with flair and style. Young soprano Sarah Coburn was similarly outstanding as Asteria, projecting with greater ease than most of her colleagues and throwing herself into the eccentricities of the modern-dress production with more assurance than most of them too.

Although he had some strong moments, David Daniels sounded less at ease than I've heard him on previous occasions; his second aria of the first act was confidently delivered, but his vengeance aria in the third act produced tension and the difficult tessitura caused him to stray below the falsetto part of his voice several times. As Irene, Claudia Huckle warmed up over time and produced some attractive tone in the final act, but she seemed unrelaxed during her second-act aria and missed its character.

However, Andrew Foster-Williams (Leone) was a favourite with the audience and tried to galvanise the performance with his showcase aria, inducing a welcome rise in the overall dramatic temperature thanks to his generous vocal resources and engagement with the text.

Even in advance there was an undoubted incongruity about the idea of Domingo singing Handel, and in terms of convincing in this repertoire, the tenor only partly succeeded. His first aria was tentative, and a very brief lapse of memory in his second aria produced a visible tension that was sad in light of his exuberant performance up to that point, though he made up for it with the suavity of his final trill in the number. The casting of the great Spaniard in the role of Bajazet is innovative inasmuch as he suits it down to the ground on a dramatic level: here was all the angst of a heartbroken father and defeated, ageing warrior. At this performance, Domingo had more stage presence and charisma than any other singer and his instrument is in remarkable condition, having taken on a darker hue in recent years; his sense of text during the recitatives was also striking. Yet it's difficult to ignore the fact that technically, this style of music does not suit him particularly well, requiring an agility, stamina, focus and range that would tax even a specialist in this repertoire, let alone someone singing it for the first time in many years. I revelled in the opportunity to hear him sing a new role and will be intrigued to see how he has developed his interpretation by the time he brings it to Covent Garden, but one can only hope that he does not go too far down the path of baroque music in the final years of his long and fine career.

In all, although it was a pleasure to encounter one of Handel's more neglected masterpieces in a fully-staged performance, the unfocussed production and uneven musical qualities left me a little disappointed.

By Dominic McHugh