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Opera review: 'Tamerlano' at L.A. Opera

November 22, 2009 |  3:10 pm

Tamerlano For all the work’s virtues, the main reason that Los Angeles Opera has mounted a production of Handel’s “Tamerlano” is that tenor Plácido Domingo recently added the role of Bajazet to his repertory.

Bajazet is not the title character, but he may be opera’s first truly heroic tenor. The role provides a wide range of emotion that Domingo exploited with compelling power at the opera's opening Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Domingo's voice may be too robust, lush and big to be ideal for works by baroque composers such as Handel. But the famed tenor was able to invest the part with great sympathy and appeal.

The plot hinges on Tamerlano’s love for Asteria, the daughter of defeated Turkish sultan Bajazet. Tamerlano means to marry her instead of his betrothed, Irene. Unknown to him, however, Asteria and Andronico, one of his allies in the war, are already in love. The feints and stratagems of working out this complicated love triangle inspired Handel’s rich score.     

The young soprano Sarah Coburn was an effective Asteria, singing her lines and negotiating the complicated embellishments with a precision and accuracy shared by her colleagues.

 Typically, the performance history of "Tamerlano" is complex. Handel composed the work, based on the cruel Tartar emperor, in 1724, but he made extensive revisions as he worked with the singers before the first performance. He further revised the score in 1731, cutting some recitatives and adding a showpiece aria for a secondary character.

TamerlanoGalleryIn a note in the program booklet, visiting conductor William Lacey, who was making his company debut, said he filled out Handel’s originally sketchy orchestrations to suit such a large venue as the Pavilion. The orchestra numbered about 35 players, including two theorbos, an instrument the conductor splendidly described as “the giraffe of the lute family.”

Lacey, who conducted the alert orchestra with an expert’s consideration for the singers, incorporated a few short pieces from other Handel operas.

His colleague was director Chas Rader-Shieber, who pursued a relentlessly bleak vision of the work. In what has become a stereotype in postmodern opera, Rader-Shieber updated the events to the Nazi era. Uniformed guards stood at hand in almost every scene in David Zinn’s unadorned, sterile sets, lighted dramatically and symbolically by Christopher Akerlind. The guards disappeared in the final act, however; otherwise Tamerlano’s last-minute conversion to goodness would hardly have been credible.

On the other hand, Zinn dressed the Tartar emperor and the other main characters in modern business suits (another postmodern cliché), except for Bajazet and Asteria, who wore gorgeously colored period costumes. Maybe this was meant to contrast the old regime with the new. None of it added much to the score or story. 

For the director, however, it was not enough for the characters to repeatedly call Tamerlano a tyrant. The emperor had to demonstrate his sadism by stepping on Asteria’s hand, manhandling her and pushing her to the floor. The director also insisted that the ending be downbeat. Although Tamerlano had pardoned Asteria and Andronico, allowing them to marry and rule over Greece, the director had her reject her beloved’s hand and lie down beside her father’s corpse as the curtain fell.

One of Rader-Shieber’s more interesting ideas, however, involved Leone, Irene’s escort. As she voluptuously contemplated ascending the throne in a second-act aria, Leone began fidgeting and struggling mightily to contain his attraction to her, even as she seemed unaware of her effect on him.
All this provided the motivation for his leaping up to sing the showpiece aria about the power of love for good or evil, “Amor dà guerra e pace.” Ryan McKinney galvanized the production at that moment. (He and Coburn will both return to the Chandler for  the company’s run of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” opening Nov. 29.) The bulk of the opera, however, was carried off excellently by the five principals.

In the title role, countertenor Bejun Mehta showed off all the vocal agility required, especially in his third-act vengeance aria, which demanded etraordinary breath control. Dramatically, he did what he could within the director’s limited options.x

Mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, a prize winner at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition, sang the trouser role of Andronico with considerable subtlety and flexibility of line and made the character’s conflicts credible as well. Jennifer Holloway made a statuesque Irene, noble in bearing and in voice.

Domingo proved less agile and ornate in embellishment than did his colleagues, and his voice began to lose some sheen over the course of the 3 1/2-hour evening.

But no one came close to the dramatic power he invested in his role, and, despite Handel’s minor-key reconciliation chorus, his death scene almost justified the director’s hopeless vision.

-- Chris Pasles

"Tamerlano."
Los Angeles Opera; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; 7:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Dec. 1; 2 p.m. Saturday. $20 to $260. (213) 972-8001, Running time: 3 hours, 27 minutes.

Photo: Plácido Domingo and Sarah Coburn. Credit: Ringo H.W. Chiu.

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