Thursday 24 April 2014

Handel - Tamerlano

Handel Tamerlano
Handel Tamerlano: Ainsley, Gauvin, Cencic, Il Pomo d'Oro, Minasi: naive
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Apr 24 2014
Star rating: 5.0

Stupendous new recording of one of Handel's greatest operas

With any new recording of Handel's Tamerlano, my eye (and ear) goes first to the role of Bajazet and this new recording of Handel's 1724 opera has John Mark Ainsley in the role and on very strong form. John Mark Ainsley is joined on the disc by star counter-tenor Max Emanuel Cencic as Andronico, Xavier Sabata in the title role, Karina Gauvin as Asteria, Ruxandra Donose as Irene and Pavel Kudinov as Leone with Riccardo Minasi directing Il Pomo d'Oro on naive.

The opera concerns Mongol prince Tamerlano who has defeated the Turkish sultan Bajazet and imprisoned him and his daughter Asteria. The plot is essentially a closed box one as also in the palace are the Greek prince Andronico and also Princess Irene. Andronico and Asteria are secretly in love, and Irene is betrothed to Tamerlano, though he has reneged on his promise as he has fallen for Asteria. The results are to a certain extent typical opera seria with noble protagonists being put through the mill in a series of awkward situations. But there is more to it than that.

Without the tenor Francesco Borosini there would be no Tamerlano as we know it. The star tenor's arrival in London on 12 September 1724 caused Handel to radically re-write the role of Bajazet in the opera. 18th century operatic convention did not allow a tenor to play an heroic role, but Handel did the next best thing by vastly expanding the complex role of Bajazet. Handel increased the number of his arias and gave him an on-stage death scene, something highly daring for its time.

The title role was written for the company's second'uomo, alto castrato Andrea Pacini, with star castrato Senesino singing Andronico. Thus an opera which could reasonably be called Bajazet, has as its title role what is effectively the third man in the company.

Perhaps because of the complex tenor part, Handel only revived Tamerlano once, in 1731. Usually Handel the impresario was extremely cavalier with the work of Handel the composer, cutting and re-shaping to the detriment of the work simply to suit the cast and circumstances of the revival. But Handel took much care over the revival, keeping the arias and simply adding one (based on one from Riccardo Primo) for the minor character of Leone, and cutting the recitative significantly, but sympathetically. He cut nothing from the throne room scene (the longest stretch of recitative Handel wrote) and removed little from the supper scene. The result is a highly compact version of the opera which Riccardo Minasi has chosen to record. Handel's only oddity in the 1731 revival was to remove the terzetto, and Minasi has sensibly decided to include this item as it makes for a far better balance to the dramaturgy of the opera's second act.

Senesino for all his technical prowess had a voice with a relatively narrow compass. Max Emanuel Cencic is one of the new breed of counter-tenors with a significant upward extension so it is slightly surprising to find him as Andronico. But in the credits in the CD booklet, Cencic is listed as one of the executive producers and has co-credit for the artistic concept and cast, so presumably Andronico is a role that he wanted to sing.

And he does so truly admirably, displaying little in the way of gear changes and offering us an admirably even-toned voice throughout the range. Andronico is a bit of a wimp at first (Senesino specialised in 'pathetic' roles (in the sense of evoking pathos) though there always had to be an heroic aria for him. Here Cencic is finely pathetic and is highly moving in his aria which closes act one, then Tamerlano has managed to manoeuvre him into an unenviable position. And Cencic brings out some fabulous passagework in the showy simile aria in the middle of act two. It was clearly designed to allow Sensino to show off, and so does Cencic!

I have to confess that when I first heard Karina Gauvin as Asteria, I thought that she sounded a little too mature with slightly too much beat in her voice. But Asteria is a complex character, not a little girl, and Gauvin's approach works. In her aria at the beginning of act two when she dismisses Andronico telling him he has missed his moment and the she is going to marry Tamerlano, you realise that Gauvin really does mean business. We know, but Andronico does not, that Asteria plans to murder Tamerlano on their wedding night.

Ruxandra Donose as Irene, Bajazet's betrothed, gets the relatively short straw in terms of arias. But Donose is an experienced Handelian and brings style and a rich-toned voice to bear. She also has a notable role to play in the drama, which she does well. Irene is supported by Leone, a role which was expanded in the 1731 version, so that we get to her Pavel Kudinov in two arias. That is a great treat, as Kudinov has a fabulous dark dark voice, with focus and brilliance in the passagework.

And John Mark Ainsley as Bajazet? Well he is on cracking form, bringing brilliance, edge and petulance to the role. It is a part which lies low compared to modern tenor parts (George Petrou on his recording on MDG cast the role with a baritone). But you would not know it here, Ainsley sings with power and flexibility adding some lovely dark tones in the lower passages. The act two aria, A suo piedi when Bajazet sees Asteria at Tamerlano's feet sees Ainsley on powerful form, with a lovely sense of line, complemented by fiercely focused violins in the orchestra. This is a commanding performance, Ainsley's Bajazet is far more a king than the temperamental and strutting Tamerlano.

The only real fault I can find with Xavier Sabata's Tamerlano is that his voice sounds a little too like that of Max Emanuel Cencic, though Sabata is adept at bringing an edge of temper to his performance. Unfortunately for act one and the first part of act two he often sounds merely petulant. Partly this is Handel's fault as all of Tamerlano's irrationally threatening behaviour takes place during the recitatives and the arias are often just bluster.

The whole dramatic tenor of the performance changes with the throne room scene that concludes act two. This long, dramatic scene needs a group of great singing actors sympathetic to opera seria's style. And here there drama fairly crackles, capturing the wonderful tension of the scene.

Bajazet has a dramatic accompagnato (vividly done by Ainsley) in the middle of the scene, but the basis is pure recitative. Ainsley brings a darkly brilliant edge to his tone, complementing Sabata's petulantly imperious Tamerlano. When Asteria draws a dagger, Gauvin is fully Ainsley's equal bringing a thrilling edge to her tone and capturing vividly the drama. As the drama develops and particularly in the 1724 terzetto, Sabata's Tamerlano is really vile (in just the right way!).

The scene (and act) closes with the stupendous moment when Asteria faces Bajazet, Andronico and Irene in turn, asking whether she is still unworthy/unfaithful. Each responds with a different, powerful, arietta and the act concludes with Asteria's aria Se potessi (Minasi has refrained from tinkering here thankfully, and stayed with Handel's final thoughts). The aria is quite simple, but Gauvin sings it with a real depth of feeling, highly pointing the words and with a good strength of characterisation.

Things stay at this level in the final act, with the supper scene where Asteria tries to poison Tamerlano, and Bajazet's death scene.

The act opens with Asteria's Cor di Padre which Handel originally placed at the end of act two. Here it makes a very strong beginning with Gauvin giving a deeply felt performance and making complete sense of the aria's placing, in terms of Asteria's reaction to Bajazet's providing her with poison.

The drama in act two fairly crackles too both in recitative and aria. And here we do have a chance to hear Tamerlano displaying vigorous anger in the aria A dispetto d'un volto ingrato on learning of Asateria's love for Andronico. And the duet for the two lovers, when they both think they are doing to die Vivo in te is a lovely piece, movingly sung here by Gauvin and Cencic.

Irene's complex response to events (she still loves Tamerlano!) is a toe-tappingly vigorous aria Crudel piu non son io, which is vigorously sung by Donose. And this version we get to hear Kudinov's fabulously dark voices Leone in Nel mondo e nel'abisso the aria Handel inserted in 1731.

Max Emanuel Cencic is wonderfully urgent in Andronico's aria, Se non mi rendi il mio tesoro in which he reinforces to Tamerlano his love for Asteria. This leads directly into the terrific scene in which Asteria tries to poison Tamerlano, but is prevented by Irene. Really powerful stuff which culminates in Gauvin's performance in the accompagnato Padre amante and her intense and questioning aria Folle sei. Tamerlano orders Asteria to be raped by his slaves with Bajazet watching. Bajazet responds with Empio per farti guerra in which Ainsley is vividly incisive with a lovely edge to his tone but still fine passagework. Ainsley really uses the music here, and though he digs deep you never sense him stretching the vocal line. This mood contines into Bajazet's death scene where Ainsley uses both words and music to tremendous effect.

Gauvin's own tone, in Asteria's dialogue with her father, has a striking edge which cuts like a knife. Bajazet's final aria Figlia mia sees Ainsley touching and very moving. In his final accompagnato, Ainsley makes Bajazet's emotions turn on a pins, by turns striking like a whiplash or very tender.

There is essentially nowhere to go after this scene, and Handel cut a lot here for 1731. Handel's concluding coro is one of the most sombre that he wrote, here finely sung by all concerned.

Throughout Minasi and Il Pomo d'Oro complement the singers with highly characterised playing. Minasi seems fond of very strongly accented effects, but in the context of the high tension score this works well.

I have yet to see a live performance which really brings this wonderful score to life but on this disc, Ainsley, Cencic, Gauvin and company really make Handel's drama crack and sear as it should.

The CD booklet includes a short article by David Vicars, synopsis and full text and translations. One small annoyance, the list of tracks does not include the page number in the libretto, so finding you way is annoying.

Handel's Tamerlano is one of his greatest works and perhaps still under appreciated. Its history on disc has been patchy and only with George Petrou's 2007 recording did we get the composer's original intentions on disc in a good modern recording. Here we have the 1731 revision, in a performance of such cracking emotion that it deserves to be heard.

George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) - Tamerlano (1724/1731) [193.00]
Tamerlano - Xavier Sabata (counter-tenor)
Andronico - Max Emanuel Cencic (counter-tenor)
Bajazet - John Mark Ainsley (tenor)
Asteria - Karina Gauvin (soprano)
Irene - Ruxandra Donose (mezzo-sopano)
Leone - Pavel Kudinov (bass)
Il Pomo d'Oro
Riccardo Minasi (conductor)
Recorded April 2013 at the Villa San Fermo, Convento die Pavoniani, Lonigo, Vicenza, Italy
naive V5372 3 CD's

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