Dutch National Opera: Handel’s Tamerlano and Alcina Back

Handel’s Tamerlano as directed by Pierre Audi was first performed in 2000, in the eighteenth-century theatre at Drottningholm near Stockholm, the Swedish royal family’s summer palace. It was reprised in 2002, followed by Alcina in 2003. Both performances were brought with adapted scenery to the Amsterdam municipal theatre, the Stadsschouwburg, in 2005 and again in 2011. Three performances of each opera at the end of February of this year followed several at the Théâtre la Monnaie in Brussels.

Marlowe’s Tamburlaine The Great Part I (c.1587) is now the best-known play in England on the subject of the battles between Timur/Tamerlane the Tartar warrior and the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet, whom he defeated in 1402. It was not, however, being performed at all during the 1720s, when Handel composed Tamerlano, which opened at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on October 31st 1724. At that time Nicolas Rowe’s 1701 Tamerlane was still being put on every year around November 4th and 5th to commemorate William III’s birthday and his landing at Torbay. It was in the repertory at the time at both Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatres. A comparison between Rowe’s play and the libretto – adapted by Nicolas Haym from one by Agostino Piovene for a Tamerlano by Gasparini (Venice, 1711) and subsequently used by several other composers for operas called Bajazet – is therefore of interest. Rowe’s play turns Tamerlane into a hero with Christian virtues, tentatively equating him in the Dedication with William III, “a Prince whose Life has been a Series of good Offices done to Mankind”. Historians had trouble accepting this even at the time, but as William died just two months after Rowe’s play premiered, it became a eulogy.

The opera also makes Tamerlane a heroic victor, but as it is set after Bajazet’s defeat, when he is a prisoner and ultimately commits suicide, he can hardly be compared to William’s opponent Louis XIV. Dramatically, Bajazet’s is the leading role here and the main focus is on the relationship between him and his daughter and fellow prisoner Asteria, as Winton Dean and John Merrill Knapp have stated in Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. It must have been confusing to the original London audience. Musically, the focus would have been on the Tamerlane, originally the famous castrato Senesino and now usually a countertenor, rather than on the tenor Bajazet.

The plot of Alcina is derived from the sixth and seventh cantos of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Handel’s source, as Dean tells us, was an anonymous libretto called L’isola di Alcina, set by Farinelli’s brother Riccardo Broschi for the carnival season in Rome in 1728. Handel probably acquired the libretto a year later when he visited Rome. As women were forbidden to perform there by papal interdict, all four female parts in Broschi’s opera were sung by castratos as well as the Ruggiero (Farinelli). Handel made very few changes to these settings, but he altered the soprano role of Melissa to make room for a bass. He retained as many as twenty-four of the original thirty-four aria texts.

Handel completed his opera on 8 April 1735 and it was first performed at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden on the 16th with Anna Strada del Pò as Alcina and the castrato Carestini as Ruggiero. The Oberto was a treble. Handel’s works were usually performed at the Haymarket Theatre, so why not this time? The Opera of the Nobility was founded as a rival company to Handel’s in 1734. Handel’s contract with the Haymarket manager Heidegger expired that June, and Heidegger became manager to the Opera of the Nobility instead, which meant that Handel had to find another theatre. He moved to John Rich’s Covent Garden theatre, erected in 1732 with the profits made from The Beggar’s Opera. Operas and oratorios were performed there and the new theatre was technically superior.

Both the original Drottningholm performances and the revivals were accompanied by Les Talens Lyriques, conducted from the harpsichord by Christophe Rousset. The ensemble’s name is appropriate, the talent in the orchestra pit being on the same high level as it often was on the stage. Some of the tempi were breathtaking, as if the musicians had to prove themselves, but they were accurate and the music was as energetic as theatre music must be. Rousset had the orchestra growl or rage, for example, in Bajazet’s Empio, per farti guerra in the third act of Tamerlano. Occasionally the orchestra was so dominant that the heavily accented basses disturbed the balance with the singers.

The vocal soloists in Alcina were Sandrine Piau as Alcina, Maite Beaumont as Ruggiero, Angélique Noldus as Bradamante, Sabina Puértolas as Morgana, Chloé Briot as Oberto, Daniel Behle as Oronte and Giovanni Furlanetto as Melisso. This was a strong cast, particularly Piau, whose warm voice, rich in colour, evokes memories of Arleen Auger singing the same role in the eighties. Her first act Di, cor mio set the tone for brilliance, another high point being Ah, mio cor, schernito sei! in Act Two, following ominous arpeggios from the theorbo in the opening bars.

The vocal soloists in Tamerlano were Christophe Dumeaux as Tamerlano, Jeremy Ovenden as Bajazet, Sophie Karthäuser as Asteria, Delphine Galou as Andronico, Ann Hallenberg as Irene and Nathan Berg in the role of Leone. After Alcina, which we saw first, Tamerlano was an anticlimax, as the timbre and colour needed to give these roles their shine was lacking, particularly in the male protagonists. Instead of using incidental vibrato to accentuate an emotional moment or as an ornament, they employed it almost continually. Nor were Dumeaux and Karthäuser always able to match the volume of the orchestra.

The Dutch National Opera presented the operas as a duo, using much of the same scenery, but the operas themselves differ in every way. Tamerlano was first performed by the Royal Academy. Famous Italian vocalists were lured to London with stupendous salaries, meaning that relatively little money remained for all the other elements of an opera: scenes painted by famous designers, rich costumes, spectacular machines and scene changes. All these things had played a crucial role in the success of a production ever since opera was introduced as an art form. The whole story takes place in various areas within Tamerlano’s palace: a courtyard, a hallway, a cabinet, a seraglio. The scene changes would thus have been relatively simple, presumably using the Palladian-style scenery then customary in the theatre and perhaps adding some exotic touches. A comparison with other operas performed at the King’s Theatre at that time suggests that a considerable amount of recycling was done.

Alcina, in contrast, is one of Handel’s magic operas, first performed at Covent Garden, where there were more possibilities for what John Rich called ‘those various Embellishments of Machinery, Painting, Dances, as well as Poetry it self, which have been always esteemed […] Auxiliaries absolutely necessary to the Success of Musick…’. These were necessary, too, in order to compete with the Opera of the Nobility. The stage directions for Alcina thus include a ballet in each of the three acts as well as nine different scenes, including a lonely place, enclosed by steep and rugged mountains and a small cave, plus various areas in and outside of Alcina’s palace. During the finale Alcina’s palace and everything around it collapse and disappear. The ruins are submerged by the sea, which is visible through a vast underground cave, where many boulders are turned back into men.

The number of baroque theatres in Europe preserved in their original state is very limited and some of them are tiny. The two most important ones are the palace theatre in Drottningholm and the castle theatre in Česky Krumlov (Czech Republic). Both of them were completed in 1766 and owe their survival to centuries of neglect. In Česky Krumlov, apart from the (theatre) machinery, a large amount of scenery and many costumes were also preserved. This scenery is used very sparingly for a few performances during a summer festival. In Drottningholm, copies have been made of the rediscovered scenery, which are used for performances every summer. Directors in Drottningholm may use only the available scenery. However, the limited number of scenes available doesn’t always cover the specific requirements of the opera, which occasionally makes curious compromises necessary.
Perhaps that was what impelled the artistic director at Drottningholm to go for something completely different and invite Pierre Audi to direct Tamerlano in 2000? Audi’s earlier stagings of Monteverdi’s Ritorno d’Ulisse and l’Orfeo in Amsterdam, to which he owed a considerable part of his international reputation at the time, had little affinity with baroque theatre and had provoked baroque specialist Gustav Leonhardt into pronouncing them “vulgar”. Even the interviews Audi gave, aside from a token bow to Monteverdi, clearly indicated his intention of turning baroque opera into modern psychodrama, which was exactly what he did to Tamerlano. Clearly, though, Tamerlano was well-received in Sweden, as he was invited back to direct Alcina three years later. The fact remains that the preconditions were perhaps met in letter but certainly not in spirit. On the contrary, the designation ‘sabotage’ would have been more applicable.

Audi’s success is not so surprising, considering all the deforming Regietheater inflicted upon European opera audiences during the past decennia. Compared to that, Audi’s stagings are restrained. But the aesthetics are those of the late twentieth century, constantly clashing with those of the baroque: magnified naturalism in poses and gestures emphatically illuminates the unpleasant sides to the various characters. The singers clasp colleagues to their bosoms while singing an aria, hurling them hence as the da capo begins. They also keep falling to their knees and when it gets really exciting they sing while lying on the stage. Both Bajazet and Alcina die sitting on a chair. The (kitchen) chair, of course, stands for the throne, and in both operas it gets ‘significantly’ thrown around during the action.

This kind of banality is a modern answer to the rich assortment of stylised attitudes and gestures of baroque theatre. It’s mediocre. It is also inconsistent, as it goes against the purported realism, as seen, for instance, in the reconciliation scene between Morgana and Oronte at the start of the third act: heavy petting, soixante-neuf, on the stage floor, which in Amsterdam is luckily smooth and only photographically simulates the rough planks of Drottningholm, where this scene will not have been a pleasant experience for the singers. Earlier on, Morgana gropes Bradamante, who is a woman disguised as a man. One would think that Morgana then discovers this, but no. Astolfo – who was turned into a lion by Alcina and in the final act licks the feet of his young son Oberto, who is desperately seeking his father – is in Audi’s version an old man with scraggly hair and a long beard who crawls across the stage shoving a property box along, which he then mounts in order to make clawing movements at Alcina. One would have expected derisive laughter from the audience, but there was silence. How far have we become conditioned to infantilism?

After Alcina has lost her magic powers and her sister Morgana has been stabbed to death more or less in passing by Oronte, Alcina’s metamorphosed lovers appear in their own shapes from behind some property boxes and sing the final chorus, before going offstage one by one. Again, some deep meaning is presumably implied, but the impression left on us is that of a parody of the often highly ingenious transformation scenes on the baroque stage.

Both operas have generic eighteenth-century costumes, lacking decoration but with tasteful late twentieth-century colours in matching shades, designed by Patrick Kinmonth. Instead of architecture painted on canvas, we get to see plywood wings sprayed plain olive green with gold-coloured mouldings from a DIY shop, which are accentuated in the raking light and thus indicate palace architecture schematically, at least in the adapted version seen in Brussels and Amsterdam. In Drottningholm we assume that the painted scenery from their collection was utilised. The lighting design by Matthew Richardson often had strong light on the singers, leaving the scenery in relative darkness, rather than having the imitation candlelight promised on the Stadsschouwburg and National Opera websites. The ballets in Alcina were scrapped. Maybe we should be grateful. During a revival of Audi’s 2006 version of Rameau’s Zoroastre made for Drottningholm, which we saw in Paris, the ballet was degraded to a parody of baroque dance.

Audi’s coup de théâtre, which has led to jubilant reviews, was the disappearance of the entire ‘baroque’ set during the last act, so that one is looking at an imitation of the wooden wall at the back of the empty Drottningholm stage. The message is clear: none of this was real (who would have thought it!). This trick is found in both Tamerlano and Alcina, and something similar concluded the Zoroastre mentioned earlier. It seems to have become a kind of trademark, but stepping outside the fiction, undoing the suspension of disbelief as it were is, in a baroque context, a narrational deadly sin. The storyteller doesn’t believe in his own story.

To conclude, the music is gorgeous, the singers were good to great, the orchestra superb. As for the staging, the imagery of singers clasping colleagues to their bosoms while singing an aria, only to hurl them away, fits in perfectly with our experience of Audi’s attitude towards audiences promised authentic eighteenth-century theatre on the Stadsschouwburg website.