How do you solve a problem like Tamerlano? Clearly the high-camp humour that has served so many other Handel hits in recent years would be inappropriate here. This opera is austere and astringent, opera seria in its purest form but nor is Graham Vick’s approach entirely satisfactory.
Vick’s production, first seen at Florence’s Maggio Musicale festival back in 2001, and revived in Madrid two years ago, may not attempt a raucous update but that’s not to say it doesn’t carry its own agenda. Sultan Bajazet’s imprisonment and blackmail by the conquering Emperor Tamerlano are played out against a blank canvas staging that offers little more than pattern and tightly-choreographed gesture as accompaniments to the da capo longueurs. While this glacial approach is in one sense refreshing it also deprives the characters of their human dimension.
No doubt Plácido Domingo would have brought charisma to the role of Bajazet, and, one senses, provided an anchor for the production as a whole. Without him the cast faired well but lacked sparkle. Christianne Stotijn played the title role with convincing arrogance but sounded underpowered and uneven at times, especially during her first aria, “Vo’ dar pace”, although she relaxed throughout the evening.
Kurt Streit sounded strong and secure as Bajazet, and Renata Pokupić sang prettily as Irene. It was Sara Mingardo, as Tamerlano’s ally Andronico, however, who really stood out: her luscious contralto is well suited to the lower Baroque pitch and her arias carried an emotion that seemed to be lacking elsewhere.
Richard Hudson’s set is a study in self-conscious subtlety: the stage is dominated by white walls and a large white globe, and movement of these structures is almost imperceptible. Occasionally, however, this fluency is interrupted by Orientalised whimsy or the splash of saturated colour: bright blue elephants, a bizarre shrine and two (admittedly ravishing) acid lime and pink costumes. In fact, the overall designs work well with a large amphitheatre, such as the Royal Opera House, because its own scale is uncertain, but the imagery exhausted itself well before the four and a half hours were up.
Tamerlano is, musically and structurally, far more formulaic than Giulio Cesare or Rodelinda, the two works that flank it chronologically, and although Ivor Bolton encouraged a lively, up-tempo account of the score from the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment it was not enough to relieve the dramatic torpor on stage.