Handel's Tamerlano at the Salzburg Festival
Location: Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg
Event Date: August 2012
Review Date: 10th August 2012
Reviewed By: Benedict Taylor, University of Oxford
Review Citation: Benedict Taylor, review of Handel's Tamerlano at the Salzburg Festival
Date Accessed: 22nd May 2013
However good the music might be, a concert performance of a Handel opera that stretches well-nigh four hours would understandably provoke fears of monotony for many audiences without the minimal trappings of dramatic action to provide relief or stage sets a welcome excuse for funnelling communal ire. (Salzburg’s Whitsun production of Handel’s preceding opera, Giulio Cesare, with an equally stellar cast of singers, certainly provided opportunity for the latter.) How many da capo arias can one sit through at a single time without nodding? But this is music that above all sustains its interest from vocal virtuosity, its delight from the skill in the here-and-now of its performative execution, and in the riches of vocal talent assembled on the stage of Salzburg’s Grosses Festspielhaus the packed audience certainly heard this. With singers of this calibre one might well question whether stage action would in fact have proved a distraction.
Without doubt the talking point of the evening was the presence of Plácido Domingo within a group of musicians known for their prowess at a historically informed performance practice (his first foray into this particular territory, albeit a role he has played before this production in Washington and Los Angeles). Notwithstanding the fact that Handel wrote the role of the noble suffering Bajazet for a tenor, latter-day purists of the modern baroque performance manner might look askance at the invasion of their camp by this unreconstructed throwback to mainstream twentieth-century Romantic performance style. There are tenors and there are tenors, indeed the very conception has changed significantly across the ages (the battle in the 1830s between Adolphe Nourrit and Gilbert Duprez perfectly highlights the tenor voice’s historical variability), but Domingo is certainly located near, if not on, the most full-bodied end of the vocal spectrum. The contrast with the other singers present, above all the male altos Bejun Mehta and Franco Fagioli, could not be greater – between, if you like, a bluff, red-blooded late nineteenth-century conception of vocal masculinity and the castrato-emulating agility of a contemporary reconstruction of earlier practice.
Yet vocally this unexpected juxtaposition was surely the perfect means for encapsulating the tragedy of the proud Ottoman Sultan incarcerated by his Mongol captives. Here we have the possessor of a voice of such lustrous richness, dramatically bound up in chains and vocally confined by the fast-moving Baroque vocal lines, runs and fioriture (which, need it be said, Domingo brought off with consummate technique, notwithstanding its foreignness to his normal idiom). The effect is of a Samson agonistes, a once-mighty beast still capable of fitfully rising to the heights (as in Bajazet’s final aria, carried off with tremendous artistry and controlled pathos), yet one whose greatness is somehow overcome in this idiom by the greater flexibility and penetrative power of the lighter male voices, above all Mehta’s despotic Tamerlano, the other star of the evening. For both Mehta and Fagioli, playing the Grecian prince Andronico, were able to run quicksilver rings around the regal tenor, although the slightest tremor from Domingo, his voice oozing nobility, held forth the promise of hidden depths of pathos that the stratospheric pyrotechnics of the altos could not displace from the memory. The audience appeared split between their evident deep respect for Domingo, already a virtual living legend, and recognition of the virtuosity in evidence from the altos, though the most prolonged applause of the night was notably reserved for Mehta.
Among the supporting cast, if this description is fair for an ensemble so advanced in talent, the young Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva stood out early on for her Asteria. Lezhneva possesses a pure, flexible voice, almost bell-like in its clarity but with a darker, slightly plangent quality able to infuse almost at will a quality of pathos into a phrase (one was reminded of the timbre of Victoria de los Angeles at times). Perfectly suited to the slower, more soulful arias such as her opening number in Act I, she showed herself just as adept at the faster fioriture the role later demanded. Forming a fitting contrast, Marianne Crebassa’s darker-hued mezzo possessed agility and virtuosity in equal measure for the part of Asteria’s sympathetic rival Irene. Michael Volle, as Leone, had less to do, but what he had he did with assurance, while Marc Minkowski and his Musiciens du Louvre provided consistently sympathetic support, running the gamut from tenderness to gusty bravado with some excellent wind solos standing out. Overall the performance witnessed a fascinating meeting of older and newer styles, a productive juxtaposition of contrasting practices underpinned by its consistently exalted level of musical achievement that made this a memorable evening for all that saw it.
Bejun Mehta, Tamerlano
Plácido Domingo, Bajazet
Julia Lezhneva, Asteria
Franco Fagioli, Andronico
Marianne Crebassa, Irene
Michael Volle, Leone
Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble
Marc Minkowski, Conductor
Further performance scheduled for 12 August 2012.