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Kurt Streit as Bajazet [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of Royal Opera House]
08 Mar 2010

Tamerlano: Handel at the Royal Opera House, London

Handel’s Tamerlano, in the production by Graham Vick, is well known, but its run at the Royal Opera House is unusual because many of the cast are creating the roles for the first time. It isn't a live reprise of the DVD, but more challenging.

G. F. Handel : Tamerlano

Kurt Streit: Bajazet; Chreistine Schäfer: Asteria; Christianne Stotjijn: Tamerlano; Sara Mingardo: Andronico; Renata Pokupić: Irene; Vito Priante: Leone. Ivor Bolton: conductor. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Graham Vick: director. Richard Hudson: designs. Matthew Richardson: lighting. Ron Howell: choreography. Royal Opera House, London. 5th March 2010.

Above: Kurt Streit as Bajazet

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of Royal Opera House


Plácido Domingo had been billed to sing five of the seven performances, but was rushed to hospital days before opening night. Kurt Streit had to step in at short notice. This is his first Bajazet, although he’s very experienced and professional. Domingo’s name sells tickets, but his withdrawal wasn’t an issue for me, sad as the circumstances are, for his Bajazet is a known quantity. I’d been planning to hear Streit anyway, later in the run.

Unlike Domingo, Streit is a baroque and Mozart specialist, so he brings a completely different perspective to the role. Bajazet is not a sympathetic character. He is used to being an autocrat, whose will is unquestioned:. Suddenly he’s in chains, defeated by “a common herdsman”. It’s so far beyond his comprehension that he cannot adapt. Suicide is his only option. It’s a kind of warped autonomy. Because he can’t learn or change, it’s the only form of self-preservation left to him.

Streit’s Bajazet is regally dignified. Men like he don’t do empathy, they rule. This makes the tenderness between father and daughter all the more poignant. Streit’s Bajazet is perceptive, for Bajazet is fundamentally isolated by his inability to relate to others. After swallowing poison, he has nothing to lose, so gives in to feelings. Streit’s calm, magisterial singing at this point conveys the sense that the Ottoman has found sublimation. Being an absolute monarch can be a burden, and perhaps Bajazet at last senses release.

Bajazet_et_al.gifChristine Schäfer as Asteria, Kurt Streit as Bajazet and Sara Mingardo as Andronico

Tamerlano represents the new order wiping away the old. His costumes constantly change, a dash of colour against the stark black and white design of the set. Eventually, Tamerlano appears in full wig and train, like a monarch of the Ancien Regime. It’s not in the libretto, but a telling observation, for Tamerlano became a tyrant. Handel didn’t need to spell this out explicitly, but the implications would not have been lost on him. Full credit to Graham Vick and his team (Richard Hudson, designs).

This production looks uncompromisingly modern, because Handel’s ideas are relevant to modern times : power, integrity, loyalty. The lighting (Mathew Richardson) is oppressively bright, but throws the moral issues in the opera into full focus. Because there’s no unnecessary detail, such details as they are become significant - rows of anonymous servants, moving in stylized obeisance, like machines. Great Empires function through rituals like these. Power is symbolized by a huge foot, bearing down on a sphere which perhaps represents the world. When Bajazet and Asteria crawl under, it feels dangerous, as it should be. They’re not crushed by the set but by what it means.

Irene_Pokupic.gifRenata Pokupić as Irene

Princess Irene appears astride a huge blue elephant. It’s marvelous theatre. But power “is” theatre. The elephant looks comic, like an illustration in a children’s book. But again, there is something faintly ludicrous about these monarchs handing out kingdoms as if they were candy.

Christine Schäfer is a superb Asteria. It’s her debut in this role, too, though like Streit, she has extensive experience in Handel and the Baroque. Indeed, they’ve appeared together, including Partenope at the Theatre an der Wien. The dynamic between them is good.

Schäfer’s Asteria is so strong that she really comes over as her father’s daughter. Such ferocity and strength of purpose. From Schäfer’s diminutive frame emits a voice so coolly resolute, it’s frightening. The famous “whiteness” of her timbre is ideal. Virginal as Asteria is, she has integrity. To honour her father, she’d kill and die. Ostensibly Tamerlano is attracted by her beauty, but her personality is more than a match for his. Perhaps he’s wise not to marry her. He’s safer with Irene.

Asteria’s purity is indicated in her simple white dress and pigtails. She’s a princess from a long line of bluebloods, but rates moral integrity far higher than worldly power. Irene, in contrast, loves power and status, which is why she won’t settle for second best. Renata Pokupić’s Irene makes a grand entrance on the blue elephant, but spends most of the opera huddled under a black veil. She’s biding her time. She sang the role in Madrid in 2008, so she sings it with assurance.

Tamerlano_Stotijn.gifChristianne Stotjin as Tamerlano

As Tamerlano, Christianne Stotijn makes a debut both in the role and at the Royal Opera House. Although she’s well known as a singer, Tamerlano is a tricky role. Few women can portray a tyrant as butch and as uncouth as Tamerlano must have been. Possibly more steel in the voice would have helped. Even though Tamerlano is prepared to spare Asteria, he isn’t a nice fellow. Acting this part is difficult, as it doesn’t remotely resemble Stotijn herself. Maybe she’ll distance herself as the run continues and play it with greater abandon.

Sara Mingardo is new to the Royal Opera House, too, though she sang Andronico in Madrid. She’s accomplished, but the part is very long and wordy. Handel wrote the whole opera in 24 days. Perhaps with more stringent revision he might have reshaped the part so it’s less verbose, so the singer doesn’t have to stretch herself so far for relatively little purpose. Even Leone, a relatively minor but critical part is sung by a newcomer to the Royal Opera House, Vito Priante.

Andronico_Mingardo.gifSara Mingardo as Andronico

I liked this first night performance for its freshness and immediacy. If some of the performances were a little tentative, they might mature as the run continues. But Streit and Schäfer are impressive, making this “new” Tamerlano a rewarding experience.

Anne Ozorio

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