Wednesday 11 November 2015

Handel's Tamerlano in concert at the Barbican

Xavier Sabata - pressphoto F, © Michal Novak
Xavier Sabata - pressphoto F, © Michal Novak
Handel Tamerlano; Cencic, Lezhneva, Sabato, Basso, Ainsley, Kudinov, Il Pomo d'Oro, Maxim Emelyanychev; Barbican
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 11 2015
Star rating: 3.5

Fine musical values in a dramatically uneven performance of Handel's dark masterpiece

The fine recording of Handel's Tamerlano with Max Emanuel Cencic, Xavier Sabata, John Mark Ainsley and Il Pomo d'Oro, conducted by Riccardo Minasi was issued in 2014 (see my review) Now the cast of the record has partly been reassembled for a short tour of the opera this time directed by the young Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev, with Max Emanuel Cencic as Andronico, Xavier Sabata as Tamerlano, John Mark Ainsley as Bajazet, Julia Lezhneva as Asteria, Romina Basso as Irene and Pavel Kudinov as Leone, accompanied by Il Pomo d'Oro. We caught them at the Barbican on Tuesday 10 November 2015.

For all that it is a masterpiece, Tamerlano remains one of Handel's most intractable scores to bring off in the theatre and I have yet to see a performance which comes anywhere near ideal. Past performances in London have included Opera Theatre Company in a semi-concert performance, a production at Sadler's Wells directed by Jonathan Miller in which Tom Randle's fine Bajazet was counterbalanced by a misconceived performance of the title role, and the Royal Opera's rather miscast version of Graham Vick's much travelled production (seen without Placido Domingo as Bajazet).

The libretto offers no sub-plot and no lighter characters, instead we have six people locked in a seemingly intractable situation all governed by Tamerlano's capricious will.

This latest performance seems fated to join the ranks of the opportunities missed. A fine musical cast delivered some strong individual moments, but the six singers never seemed to draw together into a dramatic ensemble. What drama there was, notably from John Mark Ainsley and Romina Basso, seemed to exist in isolation. Tamerlano is an opera about relationships, there isn't much in the way of action, so for the performance to come off the performers need to develop relationships. There was a little too much 'stand and deliver'. Max Emanuel Cencic gave us some lovely moments but seemed semi-detached from the drama, even taking himself off the stage at random moments, whilst Julia Lezhneva remained a little too impassive.

All this might have worked if conductor Maxim Emelyanychev had taken control of the drama and given us a performance which travelled a coherent dramatic arc, tightening the screw as the evening progressed. But instead he seemed concerned about details, which never added up to a complete whole. There were some stunning moments, and he drew fine playing from Il Pomo d'Oro but it did not help that there were constant pauses for applause and, fatally, for singers to walk to their place to singer. Tamerlano only works if we are gripped by the intensity of the drama and never let go.

Inevitably the opera was performed cut; the recording has nearly 3 hour 15 minutes of music on it which if performed completed with two intervals would take us to four hours. We lost all sorts of small pieces of recitative (which seemed to confuse the surtitle operators somewhat), and the single interval was placed just before the throne room scene in Act Two. The first scene from Act Two was cut, with the result that the role of Andonico seemed to be placed in even higher relief than usual. Having the single interval worked well enough, but the throne room scene became simply the preface to Bajazet's death scene rather than the climax of Act Two. Having all the pauses I mentioned meant that part one over ran and the whole evening lasted three hours 30 minutes.

If you simply listened to the arias then Max Emanuel Cencic was on cracking form. His account of Bella Asteria was finely crafted and very moving, whilst in Piu d'una tigre (which concluded part one) he showed that he could give us vibrant, fast moving drama too. He has quite a soft grained voice and this suited Andronico's rather lamenting cast, and it was a shame that Cencic did not try to work the arias into a coherent dramatic presentation. His recitative was perfunctory and he never interacted with the other characters.

By contrast Xavier Sabata worked hard as Tamerlano, creating a striking visual dramatic complement to his musical performance. But it seemed as if he perhaps needed to work with a strong director, because Tamerlano's unnerving character was in danger of being merely petulant and, fatally, rather amusing. Sabata has quite a soft-grained tone (rather too close to Cencic's to be ideal casting), which meant that his arias were rather too lovely. He did create a coherent character during the recitative, and interacted with the other characters but this drama never seemed to quite reach his voice. Musically the performance lacked the necessary temperament.

Soprano Julia Lezhneva is something of an acquired taste. There is a quality to her voice which at best can sound plangent but too often seems to deteriorate into an undesirable edge. At her best, in Cor di padre she was plangently bleak and quite stunning, and the edge to her voice gave a nice bit of steel to her anger. But there never seemed a moment where her voice relaxed and we could simply enjoy it. It did not help that conductor Maxim Emelyanychev seemed to indulge in Lezhneva's taste for fast passagework, so that a couple of arias were taken at breakneck speed so we could be dazzled by her passagework. Dazzled we were, but character disappeared. As a performer Lezhneva is rather impassive and rarely even acknowledged the people she was supposed to be talking to, which undermined the drama fatally.

Two performers raised the dramatic temperature whenever they were on stage, Romina Basso and John Mark Ainsley. Romina Basso was an ideally dark voiced vibrant toned Irene, her performance conveying bags of temperament (it made me wonder what she would have been like in the title role). Irene has an important part to play in the mechanics of the drama, but comes relatively low in the musical pecking order. It didn't matter, Basso's vivid performance was worth catching. Technically assured, we knew exactly what Irene was feeling and who the emotions were directed at.

John Mark Ainsley made a near ideal Tamerlano. Sung at baroque pitch the role lies low for a tenor (the first Bajazet, Francesco Borosini, was closer to a modern baritone), but Ainsley produced some lovely firm dark tones. It was unfortunate that Maxim Emelyanychev seemed to think he was conducting Verdi and in some of the more dramatic passages encouraged the orchestra to almost undermine Ainsley's performance. This was far more than a concert stand and deliver and Ainsley created Bajazet from the first moment the opera started. His was a dignified, yet firm and intent character with a streak of steel beneath. His opening aria Forte e lieto started as we meant to go on. Thanks to Sabata and Ainsley the recitative in the throne room really did crackle and Ainsley's accompagnato was strong indeed. All culminating, of course, in that astonishing death scene.

Pavel Kudinov did his best with the small role of Leone, despite having one aria cut to just the A section in a manner which seemed to unnerve even the performers. His sole aria was finely delivered, but in a performance struggling with timings having any of Leone's arias seemed a luxury and it would have made better sense to employ a London-based young singer to give us just Leone's important recitatives.

Ornaments and cadenzas were quite elaborate. It has been the style recently to perform Handel with relatively discreet ornamentation in the da capo arias, but here we had a far more showy approach. Thankfully there were not gross interpolated high notes, or wholesale transposing up (or down) and octave and we could sit back and simply enjoy the show (which is what the da capo aria is for). The best of the performers also really made the elaborations count towards the dramatic character of the piece.

Il Pomo d'Oro really did live up to their reputation and the orchestral contribution was fine indeed. Maxim Emelyanychev encouraged dramatically vivid performances, though his very interventionist style meant I would probably not want to listen to the performance on disc. The ensemble used two harpsichords (correctly), but Maxim Emelyanychev's continuo playing seemed to verge on the over elaborate at times.

This was something of a lost opportunity and it did make me wonder whether casts assembled for the recording studio can work in a venue as large as the Barbican. Perhaps it might have worked if we had had an overall controlling deity in a conductor with the age and experience to be able to impose themself on the whole drama. Instead we had some stunning moments, with John Mark Ainsley's Bajazet certainly walking away with the laurels.

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