Tamerlano, Royal Opera, February 2010

The elephant with Renata Pokupic as Irene: Royal Opera photo by Catherine Ashmore

The title character in this Handel opera is the great conqueror Timur from Central Asia, who has captured the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet and his daughter Asteria. The opera was first produced in London in 1724, the same year Handel wrote Giulio Cesare, about another great conqueror, and both works involve court intrigues. In this one, Tamerlano is betrothed to Irene, Princess of Trebizond, but becomes obsessed by his captive, Asteria, and wants to marry her. She in turn is in love with the Greek prince Andronico, who serves Tamerlano, and though Bajazet thinks his daughter is happy to marry Tamerlano, she really intends to kill him. By the time Tamerlano gets over his obsession and takes pleasure in his betrothed Irene, after three long Acts, Bajazet has committed suicide and Asteria has gone off-stage to do likewise.

The music, though lovely, is very static, but Graham Vick’s production deals with this using slow stylized movements of the courtiers, and very clear designs by Richard Hudson. These are mainly black and white, except for a gloriously colourful elephant bearing Irene to the court, and attractively coloured costumes for Tamerlano.

Stotijn as Tamerlano and Mingardo as Andronico: Royal Opera photo by C Ashmore

The singing is the main thing and this was a treat. In the cinema screening of this same production from Madrid in October 2008, Domingo was Bajazet, and he was scheduled to perform the same role here. Unfortunately he was unavailable, but his replacement, Kurt Streit sang it superbly — one could not have asked for better. Tamerlano was portrayed by Christianne Stotijn who sang with spirit, but little emotive power, and the princesses Asteria and Irene were wonderfully sung by Christine Schäfer and Renata Pokupic. As Andronico we had Sara Mingardo, who sang the same role in Madrid, but here her voice in the dress rehearsal lacked colour — perhaps she was not singing out and it will be better in the regular performances. Finally, Vito Priante in the bass role of the male courtier Leone was extremely good. The singers and orchestra came together well under the baton of Ivor Bolton, in what I suppose is a largely uncut score. Personally I would have been happy with a few cuts, and though I can imagine Handel loyalists being horrified by my philistinism I find the music to this opera rather dolorous and repetitive, and the whole performance, with intervals, lasts four and a half hours.

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