Tamerlano - Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater, Munich, 24 March 2008
Munich normally sticks to the tried and tested team of David Alden and Ivor Bolton for its much-praised Handel operas. For their new Tamerlano, they stuck with Bolton for the conducting, but brought in Pierre Audi to direct, in a production first aired in Sweden.
I wouldn't dare go so far as to say Handel can be boring. But let's just say, in Handel's more diffuse or less than riveting moments, Alden's ability to expound clearly on a point or whip the attention back to the story comes in handy. Here, in Audi's austere yet surprisingly opaque production, even the bare bones of the story suffer.
The defeated Bajazet and his daughter Asteria are captured and held by Tamerlano, who decides he'd rather marry Asteria than his betrothed, Irene. But Asteria and Tamerlano's ally, Andronico, are secretly in love. Asteria's continual refusals prompt Tamerlano to order that she is raped by his slaves. So Bajazet commits suicide, Andronico offers to kill himself too, Tamerlano sees the error of his ways, and all pair off happily, Andronico with Asteria, Tamerlano with Irene.
In Audi's bleak setting, breeched and corseted figures skid around some sort of efficiently-burgled Nordic ballroom. The obligations imposed by defeat and captivity aren't addressed. Bajazet and Asteria seem any other members of this odd society. Courtly manners are everything. There's nothing to suggest Tamerlano's whims are actually enforceable demands. His threats of death and torture seem merely absurd posturing.
When a solitary chair is eventually planted on the bare floorboards, it becomes a beacon of hope for some real action that never materialises. Despite an inordinate amount of rolling and crawling round the floor, there is fundamentally little more to look at than a concert performance. The demands of the da capo arias must be met musically alone - there is nothing in the staging to reinforce the repetition and development.
It's hugely to the credit of the singers, and the reliably refined conducting of Ivor Bolton, that they manage to drag anything out of this torpor. David Daniels played Tamerlano with a piratical twinkle and a bundle of energy, more of an impetuous commander than a ruthless villain, but such were the limits of the production.
John Mark Ainsley had the fearlessness to infuse even the most rapid of coloratura with an astonishing range of expression. His decrepit elderly Bajazet was so physically convincing I could see the surprise in the faces of some audience members as he bounded around like any normal 40-something at the curtain call. This production's Unterhosemoment came in his death scene - a simple touch which underlined Bajazet's age and frailty and so magnified Tamerlano's cruelty. Another few ideas like that would have shaped the production quite differently.
Sarah Fox's Asteria got some of the most beautiful arias in the opera, Se non mi vuol amar and Cor di padre, delivered in a silvery-pure ribbon of liquid sound. Needs to watch how low she bows in a tight corset though >>>>>
Maite Beaumont's voice, deep and velvety as a pint of Guinness, is almost a shock on first hearing. Her Irene had plenty of wit, spirit and defiance, and in Par che mi nasca in seno an arrestingly ample tone coupled with meticulous phrasing.
Mary-Ellen Nesi's Andronico, handsome in looks and voice, and Vito Priante's resonant Leone rounded off the blindingly brilliant cast. It's rare that I can find absolutely nothing to carp about on the musical side, but that's how it was. I don't really do CDs, but I'd buy one of this performance in a heartbeat. It's just a tragedy that it was let down by such a lacklustre production - which led to one of the oddest ovations I've ever heard - mouse-quiet applause as the curtain descended, fading rapidly to silence, then a cup winners' ovation as the singers and conductor came back on. It was no more than they deserved.
Here's a 'behind the scenes' video produced by the Staatsoper, featuring interviews with David Daniels and Ivor Bolton and a few music clips: