Royal Opera House, London; Symphony Hall, BirminghamCould Plácido Domingo have made Handel's Tamerlano fly by? We'll never know…
Plácido Domingo is a name that sells seats. We all know that. But would the Royal Opera's new production of Handel's Tamerlano have passed more quickly had he not cancelled for health reasons? There were many empty spaces in the auditorium at curtain up as a result. Four and a half painfully lingering and uneventful hours later at curtain down, there were many more.
Relativity plays a part but even Domingo cannot pull the strings of time. Handel's 1724 opera seria is never a brisk affair. This study of two warring potentates – Tamerlano, emperor of the Tartars, and Bajazet, emperor of the Turks – takes a leisurely approach to love, loyalty and power, scarcely frivolous matters. Handel's preferred form, the da capo aria, with its repeats and repeats of repeats inviting elaborate ornament, is ideal for expressing human feeling. These vocal displays, in the right circumstances, touch the heart. Conversely, they can make your watch stop.
Why did it feel so interminable? Domingo's replacement as Bajazet, the excellent American tenor Kurt Streit, had all the right dignity and emotional sincerity required. Sara Mingardo's Andronico, who with Bajazet has the best showpiece arias, brought an asexual contralto colour to the cross-dressed role. Ivor Bolton conducted with pace and flair, and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment brought customary vigour and poise to the score.
The chief reason for failure lay in the scale both of work and production, swamped by the sheer size of the Royal Opera House. Handel wrote Tamerlano for the King's theatre, London, a far smaller auditorium. Graham Vick's 2001 staging was first seen at the intimate Teatro della Pergola in Florence. At Covent Garden, except when they came downstage and sang out directly, singers could hardly be heard. Fury and love ended up the same aural colour: magnolia.
Matters were made worse by the distancing effect of a false proscenium, created from a stencil-like frame with a large circle cut out. A corresponding disc was positioned upstage. This black hole doubled as the gates of death, into which the poisoned Bajazet eventually steps (but no! It's not over yet. There are still another 20 minutes to go), as well as a handy cupboard in which to tidy away Tamerlano's pull-out throne cum trolley. Every home should have one.
Vick's staging kept the action reasonably simple and introduced a degree of stylisation, with performers holding a pose, arm outstretched to create a rhetorical silhouette, before starting to sing. This device added to the elegance of the stage picture. Should one complain about a surfeit of beauty? Against a backdrop of a spotless white, Richard Hudson's designs, lit by Matthew Richardson, played historical games with Mughal imagery, 18th-century fashion and modern geometric abstraction. Embroidered frock coats, grand turbans, dhoti and kurta were fashioned in silks of every shade from rosewater and oyster-grey to sizzling lime or cerise embellished with gold.
The only visual misjudgment, and quite a hefty one, was the suspended sculpture of a Pythonesque giant foot, pressed down on a huge sphere, the world Tamerlano has supposedly conquered. It bobbed up and down with the ease of a helium balloon, matching perhaps the portrayal of Tamerlano himself, not as the "scourge of God", as Marlowe called him, but as a tiresome lightweight dandy. Despite Christianne Stotijn's best efforts, she was alas born neither to sing the role nor, in Ron Howell's heel-and-toe choreography, to dance it. At the end of the evening, the sprint for the exit was competitive.
Real excitement was palpable, however, in Symphony Hall, Birmingham, last weekend as the capacity audience awaited the arrival of Simon Rattle and soloists for Bach's St Matthew Passion, with his former orchestra the CBSO, together with the 200-strong CBSO chorus and children's chorus. This was Rattle's first performance of a work he has admitted, having revered it since childhood, he was almost too frightened to conduct.
His long apprenticeship, on the grounds that all subsequent western music leads back to Bach, has paid off. This account was the happiest of mixed marriages, uniting period performance insights, in alert tempi and rhythmic zest, with a large chorus and symphony orchestra at modern A440 pitch. String vibrato was minimal but used wisely to help projection in the two violin solos of Part II, in which the performers stood to play; the organ and cello continuo had a welcome mellow reticence, with the unusual addition of a lute; standard woodwind sounded lean yet generous.
Rattle, who will conduct a semi-staging directed by Peter Sellars in Salzburg later this month, had amassed top quality soloists led by Mark Padmore as the Evangelist, singing from memory. He kept his score under his chair, like a lucky charm, but never used it. True, he has sung it hundreds of times, but with conductor and performers behind him, and no mirrors or trickery to help, he took a brilliant risk, heightening the dramatic immediacy. The mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kozená (Lady Rattle) was openly expressive but never operatic in her solos, especially the "Erbarme dich" lament.
Baritone Christian Gerhaher's wonderful Christus avoided the disembodied quality sought by some, concentrating instead on Christ's humanity. Only Thomas Quasthoff, enthusiastically singing along with the well-drilled chorus in the chorales, at times seemed uneasy. He lost his compass in "Komm, süsses Kreuz", where the anguished insistence of the viola da gamba (Richard Tunnicliffe) was a little too well reflected in his vocal exertions. Comfort was restored, however, in Quasthoff's pastoral-like final aria, "Mache dich, mein Herze, rein", which Rattle conjured with beatific, dancing joy.
At the start he had dedicated the performance to the memory of his friend Philip Langridge, the matchless British tenor who had died only hours earlier. Rattle spoke warmly of working with him in more than 100 performances, calling him "part of the Birmingham family". The gasps of shock in the auditorium reflected the affection in which Langridge was held. Our sense of loss intensified the power of a remarkable event.
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