Handel: Tamerlano, HWV 18 (1731 version)

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ALBUM TITLE: Handel: Tamerlano
WORKS: Tamerlano, HWV 18 (1731 version)
PERFORMER: Karina Gauvin, Ruxandra Donose, Xavier Sabata, Max Emanuel Cencic´, John Mark Ainsley, Pavel Kudinov; Il Pomo d’Oro/Riccardo Minasi


There are many versions of the story of Tamerlane and his capture of the Ottoman emperor, Bajazet. In some, the warrior king is merciful in victory; in others, sadistic. In Tamerlano, Handel’s 1724 opera, he is both. As with Rodelinda (1725), the source of Niccolo Haym’s libretto for Tamerlano was an earlier Venetian adaptation of a 17th-century French tragedy, Tamerlan, ou la Mort
de Bajazet
. Its author, Jacques Pradon, was a second-tier playwright, but something of the moral rigour of Pradon’s idol, Racine, can be heard in this adaptation of an adaptation
of an adaptation.

Tamerlano re-entered the repertoire in the millennium as a vehicle for Plácido Domingo, the role of Bajazet lying comfortably low in the voice and imbued with nobility. (When Domingo took the role of Neptune in the Metropolitan Opera’s Baroque pasticcio, The Enchanted Island, Bajazet’s aria ‘Figlia mia, non pianger, no’ was included.) However Handel’s emphasis is not solely on the defeated emperor’s final act of resistance but rather on the tension between him and his captor: two kings in stalemate. For this device to work, you need a countertenor as charismatic and authoritative as your tenor. Riccardo Minasi’s reading of the more propulsive 1731 edition of Tamerlano – into which the striking 1724 trio for Tamerlano, Bajazet and his daughter, Asteria, ‘Voglio strage’ (‘I want massacres’) has been reinstated – restores this balance. The cast is of exceptional and even strength, from tenor John Mark Ainsley’s eloquent Bajazet to soprano Karina Gauvin’s limpid Asteria and bass Pavel Kudinov’s virile Leone, whose agitated aria ‘Nel mondo e nell’abisso’ (‘In this world or the netherworld’) was written for performance by Antonio Montagnana in the 1731 revival.

No character is sidelined. As the spurned Irene, mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose brings ripeness and panache to the earthy arietta ‘No, che sei tanto costante’ (‘No, you are so true’), while the countertenors Xavier Sabata (Tamerlano) and Max Emanuel CenΩic´ (Andronico), seem almost to be two sides of the same volatile character. In a sense, they are, for Andronico represents a softer model of manhood, one for whom love is the highest aspiration. Both deliver brilliant tone and lively fioritura, while the scenes between Sabata and Ainsley crackle with fury. Minasi’s experience as a violinist is evident throughout as he directs the period instruments ensemble Il Pomo d’Oro. The orchestral performance is dynamic, the bowing expressive. With the harpsichord unusually prominent in the mix, and a wet acoustic, the effect of so much detail is sometimes coruscating. If that’s the price for such an animated performance, so be it.


Anna Picard