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International Record Review - (07-08//2014)
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Naïve V5373

Code-barres / Barcode : 0822186053737 (ID426)

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Reviewer:  Hugh Canning

One of the triptych of masterpieces Handel wrote in quick succession for his 1724/25 season at the King's Theatre Haymarket, Tamerlano (Tamburlaine) has fared less well in both the theatre and on disc than its close companions Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda. It's not hard to fathom why as Tamerlano is perhaps the most dark and pitilessly tragic opera Handel wrote during his entire career ‑a battle to the death of two monstrous egos, the vindictive titular Mogul, Tamerlano, and his defeated enemy, the Ottoman Emperor Bajazet, neither of them sympathetic until the latter removes himself from this clash of Titans by taking poison, but not before wreaking emotional havoc among the people he and his antagonist have drawn into their 'corrosive quarrel: Bajazet's daughter, Asteria, her lover ‑ and Tamerlano's political ally ‑ Andronico, and Irene, Princess of Trebizond, betrothed to the tyrant, who finds herself rejected in favour of Asteria when she arrives to claim Tamerlano's hand. Almost uniquely in Handel's operatic output, there is no light relief ‑ although Asteria, written for the creatrix of Cleopatra, Francesca Cuzzoni, has moments when she uses 'women's wiles' to get her political way ‑ and the opportunities for audiences and directors to laugh at Handel's dramaturgy are few.

Part of its power derives from the implacability of the two central antagonists: Bajazet and Tamerlano, the latter a 'second man' part, taken, not, as one might expect, by Handel's reigning castrato, Senesino (who sang Andronico) but by a lesser singer, Andrea Pacini. He was surely a commanding stage performer, however, since Handel characterizes him as a psychotic monster, forever erupting in fits of rage until he is finally appeased by Bajazet's suicide. In the Ottoman Emperor, Handel conceived not only his most magnificent role for a dramatic tenor ‑ the first Bajazet, Francesco Borosini, was already experienced in this role from his appearances in Gasparini's Il Bajazet, which greatly influenced Handel after Borosini's arrival in London bringing Gasparini's score with him ‑ but arguably one of the Baroque era's greatest operatic creations. Bajazet's death scene, an extraordinary sequence of accompanied recitative, aria and arioso depicting the collapse of the obstinate anti­hero's resolve ranks with Orlando's mad scene of a few years later as the composer's most penetrating insight into psychological breakdown. It can be devastating in the theatre, and on disc when a tenor ‑ or in Yannis Christoyannis's case, for George Petrou, a high baritone ‑ is up to the musical and psychological demands of the role.

Bajazet bas attracted tenors from Alexander Young, whose fine performance is preserved on the pioncering Parnassus set ‑ a complete performance from 1970, now stylistically superseded by its successors ‑ to Plácido Domingo, who can be seen on a Paul McCreesh‑conducted DVD of Graham Vick's production as re‑staged in Madrid (when that production came to Covent Garden, Domingo was ill and replaced by Kurt Streit). Onstage Anthony Rolfe Johnson and, even more so, Philip Langridge, inherited Young's mantle in the role, though neither of their performances, sadly, was recorded commercially. (Young can also be heard in a BBC studio‑produced recording, occasionally available as a 'pirate' recording alongside Maureen Lehane's Tamerlano and Janet Baker's Andronico ‑ with so many Radio 3 recordings now legitimately released on commercial labels, it beats me that the BBC can't put out its historically important Handel opera recordings: a Norrington­-conducted Radamisto, with Baker, Della Jones, Eiddwen Harrhy and Lynda Russell is more than that and might be any Handelian's first choice for that wonderful if still neglected opera, which was issued on Ponto, PO‑1054.)

On this Naïve issue ‑ a successor to the award‑winning Alessandro on Decca from the same 'executive' production team headed by this set's Andronico and the former's Alessandro, Max Emanuel Cencic ‑ John Mark Ainsley is a more than worthy successor to Young, Langridge and Rolfe‑Johnson, to mention only three leading British Bajazets of the last half century, and to the excellent Nigel Robson and John Elwes on John Eliot Gardiner's and Jean‑Claude Malgoire's sadly abbreviated sets. Ainsley is an experienced Handelian, certainly, but he still sounds vigorous and up for a fight in Bajazet's opening aria, 'Forte, e lieto', and he is commanding throughout as he builds up to his climactic suicide, in which he is as moving as any other exponent of the role I have heard. His voice, still fresh‑sounding, is more mellifluous than either Young's or Robson's ‑ the latter certainly not a performance to be underrated for its dramatic power ‑ and he delivers the text, in not perfectly idiomatic but clear Italian, with an incisiveness and forcefulness that hits you in the solar plexus when he rounds on his captor, his daughter and her lover in his incandescent rage. This is the finest thing the British tenor has done on disc and one can only hope it leads to stage performances in the very near future while Ainsley is still in his prime.

Cencic and his production colleagues have surrounded this great performance with outstanding Handel singers. The Spanish countertenor Xavier Sabata chose one of Tamerlano's arias as the opener for his outstanding solo recital devoted, unusually, to Handel's 'Bad Guys' (reviewed in April 2013) ‑ they certainly don't get 'badder' than the titular anti‑hero of this opera and Sabata's flamboyant persona and gritty vocal timbre are ideal for the part in the absence ‑ thankfully ‑ in our time of star castrati. Cencic's more soft‑grained voice well suits the lover Andronico ‑ whom Winton Dean judges a less than heroic character ‑ but he sounds far from wimpish when facing up to the emotional blackmail of Bajazet and Asteria, and the menaces of his supposed friend, Tamerlano.

The Asteria, Karina Gauvin, is arguably the Handel prima donna of our day, certainly on disc, and though her voice is occasionally recorded edgily here, the purity of her line and instrumental fluency of her technique carry her through to a magnificent account of 'Cor di padre', one of Handel's most searing laments: it is hard to imagine it better sung than Gauvin does here. Even the secondary roles are extremely well taken: Ruxandra Donose, the Irene, is an especial surprise as she is better known for roles such as Carmen, Charlotte in Werther and Strauss's Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos than for Baroque repertoire: her plush mezzo is unfazed by Handel's coloratura and she is heart‑warming in the lovely siciliana ‘Par che mi nasca', performed here in the experimental' instrumentation with duetting clarinets, which Handel dropped in favour of flutes, before the premiere.

The conductor Riccardo Minasi opts for the first recording of the score for the 1731 revival, when Senesino was the only cast member remaining from the 1724 premiere, and Handel made surprisingly few changes. The secco recitative was tightened up, but all of the arias remained as before, with the exception of an addition: a bravura number, adapted from lsaccio's part in Riccardo Prima, for his new star bass, and future Zoroastro in Orlando, Antonio Montagnana. 'Nel mondo, nell'abisso' adds nothing to the drama ‑and in truth its fire‑and‑brimstone bravura comes as something of a surprise in a character as anodyne as Irene's confidant, Leone ‑ but it's a show‑stopping piece, brilliantly sung here by Pavel Kudinov, a new name to me but obviously a young Handel bass to be reckoned with. Minasi gets unfailingly stylish playing from his crack ensemble Il pomo d'oro (The Golden Apple' rather than 'The Tomato', named after Cesti's opera about the Judgement of Paris), his tempo choices are judicious and his pacing of the drama unerring. In sum, while there are many fine individual performances contained in previous recordings, this new Tamerlano is without a weak vocal link and presents Handel's drama, for the first time I think on disc, as one of the mightiest operatic achievements of the Baroque era. I've already listened to it four times and its emotional and dramatic impact hasn't palled. The sound quality is state‑of ­the‑art and David Vickers's booklet note is as readable and scholarly as one would expect.

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