Handel’s Tamerlano is not as well known as some of his other operas. The title character, Tamerlano, is Emperor of the Tartars. He has defeated and taken prisoner the Turkish sultan Bajazet, who has a daughter named Asteria. Asteria is in love with a Greek prince, Andronico, who is in Turkey for reasons I was unable to determine.
There is also a woman named Irene, a princess who is betrothed to Tamerlano. In this production, she enters brandishing a riding crop, but after that scene I do not believe we ever see it again, so it’s probably not important. (It’s a kind of half-possum, I guess.)
The plot concerns Tamerlano’s attempts to make Bajazet submit to his authority; Tamerlano wants to marry Asteria instead of Irene, which upsets Asteria, Bajazet, Andronico and Irene; there is poison hidden in a ring which eventually migrates into a cup; there is a brief representation of the humiliations of domestic service; there was a moment when I almost fell off the couch because opera seemed to be about to pass the Bechdel test; and by the final scene Bajazet has killed himself because death is preferable to further dishonor for himself and his daughter. Asteria rushes off after him, also desiring death, but whether she is successful or not is unclear.
The production (by Jonathan Miller, with beautiful costumes by Judy Levin) looks and feels smallish without necessarily being what you would call intimate. The staging is simple, a dim interior space with gold-colored screens that occasionally get moved about. There is a large carved chair, Tamerlano’s throne, in the middle. The only objects other than the chair are Irene’s riding crop, a ring, and a goblet. The punch of the thing depends very directly on the performers and the music.
I wasn’t sure going in how much of a wallop I expected this opera to pack. Rodelinda or Giulio Cesare or Alcina it is not. There is some enjoyable orchestral music in this, e.g. the second section of the overture, or the string parts in Leone’s Act III aria “nel monda e nell’ abisso.” I particularly liked the way that the orchestra (the English Concert under Trevor Pinnock) attacked some of the more uneasy sounding bits of Bajazet’s “A suoi piedi” in Act II.
And there is some good singing. I seem to have hit a string of good countertenor performances – Graham Pushee as Andronico was a real pleasure to listen to, esp. “bella Asteria” in Act I and the duet with Asteria (Elisabeth Norberg-Schultz) in Act III. (The duet put me in mind of “io t’abbracio” from Rodelinda. Not because it borrows any of it directly that I could tell, but because in both cases it’s a “we’re in love but will probably be separated forever” situation and there is something similar about the way Handel expresses that musically – if memory serves, there’s a pattern of ascending or descending dissonance/resolution/dissonance/resolution moves between the vocal parts toward the end of each of those duets.)
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