Review: Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet -Los Angeles Opera, November 22, 2009

Placido Domingo’s 20th century career was built on a  tenor repertory encompassing an amazing breadth of lyric, spinto and dramatic tenor roles. In the new millennium, with widespread recognition as the greatest and most famous of contemporary opera stars, he has concentrated his still formidable vocal resources on a smaller group of roles, of which Siegmund in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” is the most familiar.

This website has argued that Domingo exemplifies the ideal of “bel canto Wagnerian singing” in which every word of Wagner’s richly melodious scores are sung with the same attention to vocal purity as if one were singing a passage from the operas of Gaetano Donizetti or Vincenzo Bellini.

Domingo’s 20th century career was not associated with the operas of the baroque period – understandably, since there is a paucity of great tenor roles from the 18th century that are performed today. The two great bel canto composers mentioned above helped create in the 1830s the Italian tenor as we know him.

But Domingo, seeking roles that match his mature voice, whose legato is intact, and whose still attractive middle and lower ranges are secure (permitting him to add the baritone title role of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra” to his vast lifetime repertory.) As his voice also retains the flexibility to assay some limited tenor coloratura passages, he was attracted to the role of the Ottomon Turk Sultan Bajazet in Handel’s 1724 masterpiece, “Tamerlano”.

[Below: the sultan Bajazet (Placido Domingo, center) denounces the plans of his captor Tamerlano (Bejun Mehta, upper left); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Domingo is a superstar who is capping a glorious career as he approaches age 70, and it is a prestigious assignment for any artist receiving an invitation to join him in one of his 21st century performances. Therefore, an opera-goer attending a present day Domingo performance will hear some of the finest contemporary singers in the “other roles”.

(I avoid using the term “supporting roles” because neither Siegmund nor Bajazet is the title role in its respective opera. As an example of the graciousness towards other artists for which he is known, Domingo always observes the traditional precedence of curtain calls, that is based on which role is being sung, rather than who is the “biggest name” among the performers. Thus Domingo’s Siegmund takes the fourth from the last curtain call, allowing the artists who sing Sieglinde, Wotan and Bruennhilde to receive their ovations after him –  of course, automatically assuring a standing ovation for everyone – and the Tamerlano to take his bow after Domingo’s Bajazet.)

Separating the Turks from the Mongols

Throughout European history the expansionist aims of Central Asian tribes has repelled and fascinated the civilizations at the Western edge of the Eurasian continent. The affairs, real and legendary, of the Mongol ruler Timur the Lame (Tamerlane, or in Handel’s opera, Tamerlano) became a subject of Western European literature, revisited several times over the centuries.

In a production designed for Domingo’s Washington National Opera, and planned for a later repetition at Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera, the production designers needed first to decide whether to place the sets and costumes of the opera in its historical period (the early years of the 15th century) creating exotic costumes to represent the historical fashions of Samarkand (the seat of Tamerlano’s empire and the setting for the opera), Trebizond (the Turkish vassal state on the Black Sea from which Princess Irene and Leone come) and the Ottomon capital at Boursa (home to Bajazet and his daughter Asteria).

Alternatively, the production might time-shift the opera to another period, such as – apparently, a particular favorite of 21st century production designers – some time in the last couple of decades. Or (as the production design team decided to do) it might be mostly contemporary, with imaginative hints of the fashions of the sultans and emperors who controlled the Silk Road of Central Asia at the turn of the 15th century.

All of the action in the opera takes place in Tamerlano’s palace, which one may assume is in or near his capital city, Samarkand. That ancient and legendary land is now part of the nation state of Uzbekistan, a country that for most of the 20th century was the seat of the Soviet Turkestan Military Government. Today, to the extent that Americans think of the Uzbeki military uniforms at all, we may think of pancake shaped caps worn by their warrior-horsemen, one of the early images of the 2001 Afghan war. But costumer David Zinn chose uniforms that surely would have seemed proper dress by the Soviet Turkestan Military Government for a dozen extras who play mute pistol-packing soldiers throughout the opera.

(For those that recall my review of a performance of Wagner’s “Lohengrin” at Houston Grand Opera eight days previously, that suggested that Soviet era uniforms do not work for Lohengrin’s Brabant, I am a bit more sanguine about them in Tamerlano’s Samarkand. Even so, I think any further use of the idea in future new productions of baroque, classical and Romantic era operas should be avoided as a cliche – even by those who consider a composer’s intentions as not particularly important.)

[Below: the sultan Bajazet (Placido Domingo) is restrained by Tamerlano’s palace guards; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

The fashion scheme splits the Ottomon rulers from the Mongols. Bajazet and his daughter Asteria wear Oriental fare. (The last time I saw Sarah Coburn, who played Asteria, was in the title role of Delibes’ “Lakme”. Her costumes for Asteria and the Hindu priestess probably could have been interchanged.)

But in Zinn’s conception, not all the Turkish nobility dress in ancient Ottomon fashion. Princess Irene, who hails from Bajazet’s subject Empire of Trebizond, appears to prefer the latest styles from 21st century Milan (if not the designer labels at least the knockoffs), as does her companion, Leone.

[Below: the Emperor Tamerlano’s betrothed, Princess Irene of Trebizond (Jennifer Holloway) shares a moment with her personal assistant, Leone (Ryan McKinny); edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Notes on the Performance

As is often noted on this website, it is impossible (and likely undesirable, even if one were to find singing castrati who have mastered the intricate vocal techniques required) to recreate the precise way Handel operas sounded in the 1720s. Conductor and musicologist William Lacey  has rescored the opera to blend modern and antique instruments so as to produce a sound appropriate to the large American opera houses.

[Below: Conductor William Lacey, right, leads the Washington National Orchestra at a rehearsal of “Tamerlano” in which he plays the harpsichord during recitatives; edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph for the Washington National Opera.]

Lacey, who points out that Handel’s surviving orchestration is so sketchy that any modern performance must solve myriad issues of deciding which instruments to use and how to play them, produced a masterful edition of the opera. In the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, played by the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, the sound was vibrant and warm.

Significantly, and to the delight of the audience, at the final curtain call all of the orchestra members, including those playing such long-forgotten instruments as the theorbo, joined the singers and conductor onstage for an ovation.

[Below: conductor William Lacey; edited image, based on a photograph for the Washington National Opera.]

David Zinn’s basic unit set portrays a large, spacious, sunny white-walled room with a high, patterned ceiling, tall windows at stage left, and equally tall doors on either side. The only suggestion of Central Asia are large crates to one side, some of which obviously contain kilims and carpets woven with Persian and Turkish patterns.

(This is the third Chas Rader-Shieber/David Zinn collaboration producing an 18th century opera, I have reviewed since late July. Although I found the “Tamerlano” sets visually more attractive than those of the revival of the Chicago gangland production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at Santa Fe Opera, their elegant, 18th century style presentation of Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” for Lyric Opera, which I saw at the San Francisco Opera, clearly shows, when they set out to do it, that they can produce as elegant a production, set in a time that fits with the opera, as anyone can.)

The opera, even though Lacey made substantial performance cuts, lasts over three and a half hours. Yet with the singers that have been assembled, the succession of beautifully sung arias, each a jewel in itself, was mesmerizing. The exposition of the sprawling plot (supertitles proving useful) was presented in Handel’s pleasant recitative, whom Lacey and a fellow harpsichordist and a small group of continuo instruments, made interesting.

Even though Bajazet dies of self-inflicted poison in the third act, we are comforted in knowing that Princess Asteria, after experiencing much agony, will end up with her beloved, Prince Andronico, and that Princess Irene will marry the Emperor Tamerlano (and will apparently be able to keep her young friend Leone with her for whatever diversions he provides.)

At stage center left a large trap door opens. Prince Andronico (Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon) converses with Domingo’s Bajazet, whom Tamerlano (Bejun Mehta) had imprisoned in the room below. informing him that Tamerlano has granted Bajazet the freedom to move about the palace.

Although Bajazet is deeply depressed and suicidal (producing a loaded pistol that his captors apparently had neglected to remove from his person).  Andronico implores him to live for his daughter Asteria (Sarah Coburn), who also is a captive in the palace. Domingo sings the great aria Forte, a lieto a morte andrei with a brilliant baritonal sound and gentle coloratura.

(Those in attendance who were sure that they had heard the aria before, but who had thought that they were unfamiliar with “Tamerlano’s” music, likely recalled the almost identical aria, Va tacito e nascosto, sung by Giulio Cesare in Handel’s opera of that name, which debuted later in 1724, the year of “Tamerlano’s” premiere.)

[Below: the Princess Asteria (Sarah Coburn) is under house arrest in Tamerlano’s palace; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Soon we get the first aria from Bejun Mehta’s Tamerlano, a nicely sung Vuo dar pace a un’alma altera, soon followed by Andronico’s plaintive, eloquent Bella Asteria. Continuing from this point on, each aria is a shining jewel, expressing, in the baroque style, whatever emotion – love, jealousy, anger, despair – that the character feels at that moment in time.

Domingo’s five colleagues proved to be a strong cast. Mehta has matured into one of the leading counter-tenors of our day, with a fully developed coloratura technique and the ability to produce all the vocal fireworks – trills, cadenzas, chromatic passages – that we associate with female coloratura sopranos. His bravura third act aria A dispetto d’un volto ingrato received a rousing and well-deserved ovation from the Los Angeles audience.

In the role of Asteria, Coburn, herself no stranger to lively coloratura technique (See my review of her Lakme in this website’s March 2008 archives), was affecting, with a luscious soft vibrato in her legato passages.

[Below: Tamerlano (Bejun Mehta) explains to Asteria (Sarah Coburn) that he would prefer that she be his bride, rather than his betrothed, Princess Irene; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Bardon, the Andronico, has some of the most expressive of the opera’s moments. Bardon’s character is plagued with obsessive thoughts – he is getting mixed signals from his beloved, Asteria, while at the same time, pleading on behalf of Tamerlano, he is forced to give her mixed signals from himself.

Bardon sang with a beautiful legato for the plaintive aria Benche mi sprezzo that ends Act I, and Bardon’s own fireworks were displayed in Andronico’s bravura second act aria, Piu d’una tigre altero.

[Below: Prince Andronico (Patricia Bardon) is depressed that Tamerlano has forced him to court Andronico’s beloved Asteria on Tamerlano’s behalf; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Irene (Jennifer Holloway) made much musically of her arias, even though Rader-Shieber’s stage direction and Zinn’s costumes indicated they intended her to be a lighthearted – almost high camp – presence in a piece where so much angst and misery is expressed.

Ryan McKinny, the Leone, had an aria of his own, which allowed him to display his light basso cantante voice effectively. (I had seen him in a Soviet bloc uniform as the Herald in “Lohengrin” in Houston, whose last performance was only six days earlier. A graduate of the Houston Grand Opera Studio Artist’s program, this is the fourth time this year I have seen him in performance, and am scheduled to see his Don Basilio in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” two weeks hence.)

Final Thoughts

I attended the first of five performances of an opera for whom tickets were virtually impossible to find and surely will be a cherished memory for anyone who has seen this great 21st century performance by Domingo in a role in which he makes profound impressions, both vocally and histrionically.

As with other major Handel operas, it is filled with glorious music, and is a kind of “docu-opera” that deals with subject matter that probably contains some fragments of historical truth (Bajazet was indeed a powerful sultan who was captured by Tamerlane and died in his captivity – although historians dispute how he actually fared as Tamerlane’s prisoner.) The opera has a baroque Italian plot as fanciful as any based on the fables of Ariosto (although no witches or supernatural powers appear).

I have seen too many excellent productions that someone felt were flawed in some way or another destroyed, to the later regret of those who would have mounted the opera if  the sets still existed. This “Tamerlano” production has had its detractors, but in its defense I pose the following question: is there anything about the production that would not satisfy its critics if the costumes for Tamerlano, Andronico, Irene and Leone (and those of the extras who are not even required) were changed from modern times to the costumes of Georgian England (the time period that Handel wrote it) or to those of the century in which Tamerlane lived?

Over the past several years I have reviewed three Handel opera productions: “Ariodante”, seen at San Francisco Opera, was presented in a Georgian neo-classic style, “Rodelinda”, also at San Francisco Opera, was presented in a 1930s Chicago gangland setting, and this “Tamerlano” is in its Soviet Turkmani dressings. The only one of the three whose production that I regarded as uniformly elegant and appropriate to the music was the “Ariodante”.  But the “Tamerlano” sets have virtues that should not be overlooked or discarded.

Zinn’s sets themselves are elegant and, assuming we get a pass from the architectural historians,  could stand for either a spacious Georgian interior or a Central Asian palace. If those four characters mentioned above were dressed in the European fashions that Zinn chose for his costumes for “Abduction from the Seraglio” (see my review in this website’s October 2009 archives) the production would instantly  be transformed from its present tricky-to-defend Soviet style “modernity” to a classic look. And even Zinn’s janissary uniforms for “Abduction” could clothe the dozen extras. With the costume changes, even the antics devised by Rader-Shieber for Irene and Leone would fit, as if Elvira and Zulma from Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” had time-traveled to year 1403 on the Asian steppes.

But those are thoughts about what the future of this production might be. Its present purpose is to give Domingo the stage to perform a majestic role in a metropolitan area to which he has brought immeasurable honor and good will. Those who have seen or will see this “Tamerlano” are lucky indeed.