Saturday, 6 March 2010

Handel Tamerlano Royal Opera House - first thoughts

Because I'd planned my schedule around seeing Tamerlano at the Royal Opera House, London later in the month, it's come at a busy time for me, dashing about so much my eyes are spinning. So here are rough first thoughts that will be polished later. PLEASE SEE the review that's now up on Opera Today.

When Placido Domingo pulled out of Tamerlano, it was sad for him, but not an issue for me, as he's a known quantity (as is the whole production by Graham Vick). But the role is new for Kurt Streit, and indeed, for nearly all of the cast. This makes it rather unusual.

The magic word "Placido" sells tickets and fans will come to hear him, rather than hear what he's singing. Yet ironically he isn't a Handel specialist, while Kurt Streit is. Two completely different approaches to the role. Of course they won't be the same. Can't judge apples by pears, but of course people will try. Better to think entirely of what Streit's trying to achieve, on his own terms. This is Handel, after all, not Puccini.

Bajazet is not a sympathetic character. He's an old snob who cannot countenance being defeated by a "herdsman". He can't cope with change, so suicide is a warped act of autonomy, a kind of self preservation, keeping his identity intact. Those who can't learn have no other choice. Streit's dignified understatement makes it feel like a noble act - no whining, no poor needy me. That's for plebs, not aristos. That's why he's non-empathic. It's not his style.

Streit's Bajazet is regally dignified. Men like Bazajet 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 the poison, Bajazet 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.

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. Eventuallly, 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. Integrity, courage, individuals standing up to tyrants. 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 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.

Princess Irene appears astride a hige blue elephant. It's marvellous 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, 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 vieil. She's biding her time. She sang the role in Madrid in 2008, so she sings it with assurance.

As Tamerlano, Christianne Stotjin 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 Stotjin 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 wordy and 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.

I'm not going to judge Mingardo's Andronico. The part has lots of words but not really all that much to say. The First Act would flow a lot better I think with much savagely removed. Not Mingardo's fault - she has to spread herself a long way for little dramatic purpose. Similarly, Renata Pokupić's making her Covent Garden debut as Irene. She has one brilliant star turn, when she arrives from Trebizond astride a blue elephant. It stops the show! it's funny, magical, like a children's book come alive. Humour does happen in Handel, more often that some would have it. There is something faintly ridiculous in all these folk rushing about handing kingdomwes out like candy.

Significantly, while Princess Irene loves status and power, Asteria doesn't give a stuff for worldly things. Here Christine Schäfer wears a simple white dress and pigtail, even though she's a princess too, albeit a prisoner. It's her beauty that makes Tamerlano lose his cool and fall madly in love, upsetting the power structure. Christine Schäfer is wonderful. If Handel had seen her, he might have called this opera Asteria. And she's debuting in the role, too! But with such ferocity and strength of commitment. Remember her Gilda in the ROH Rigoletto a few years ago? There's lots on this site about her, and her Handel (Partenope, Theodora etc).

Schäfer looks small and unprepossessing, then out comes this powerful voice. She's worked a lot with Kurt Streit before: last year they did a wonderful Partenope in Vienna which was broadcast - superb ! The dynamic between them is good.

So many debuts on one night and in a big production. It would be unfair to expect too much on a first night as singers need time to develop, and grow into their roles. They are human after all, and this was the biggest moment of their professional lives. I'd be under pressure too. Apart from Streit and Schäfer, these singers are relatively inexperienced in the genre. Instead of expecting perfection, what I liked was the freshness and enthusiasm, far more important in the long term.

MORE TO COME I'm so tired now
In the next few days :

Florian Boesch sings Lieder in Westminster
Kaija Saariaho does something-or-another in Paris and
Measha Brueggergosman comes out of her chrysalis.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

pleasure to find such a good artical! please keep update!! ........................................