Händel – Tamerlano

Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, Sunday November 13 2005

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Tamerlano: Bejun Mehta. Bajazet: Bruce Ford. Asteria: Sandrine Piau. Andronico: Patricia Bardon. Irene: Kristina Hammarström. Leone: Lars Arvidson. Les Talens Lyriques.

If you’ve visited the Louvre, you may have seen the Galerie d’Apollon. It’s a magnificently-decorated royal gallery built for Louis XIV, precursor to and inspiration for the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. It houses a collection of sumptuous objets d’art in gold and silver, porphyry, jade, rock crystal, lapis lazuli and more, stretching back to the middle ages and often of saintly, royal or imperial provenance. Each one is different, they are all very precious, and each is its own perfect little world.

The gallery came to mind as I sat in the Châtelet, a few hundred yards along the Seine, listening to Sunday’s performance of Händel’s Tamerlano. In what you might call a “deluxe” performance of a Händel opera, every number is like one of those objets d’art: a miniature masterpiece in which motifs, melody and rhythm are expertly and imaginatively wrought into a coherent, deeply satisfying form. And this was one of those deluxe performances: impeccable cast and impeccable playing.

Although the opera was “in concert,” it might well have been billed as semi-staged. Fresh from a fully-staged run with the Netherlands opera, the singers were totally immersed in their parts both musically and dramatically, and acted as if in costume and sets.

And a deluxe cast it was. Bejun Mehta has an unusually even voice throughout the range for a counter-tenor, a sound reminiscent at times of a cor anglais, and once warmed-up, phenomenal agility in those terrific bravura passages Händel so often serves up at times of crisis in the plot. Bruce Ford brought all the expertise you would expect to the role of Bajazet and reduced the Paris crowd to total silence (an exploit, especially now, when nearly everyone seems to have a cough) in his death scene, ending in a mere whisper.

Sandrine Piau doesn’t have a large voice, but she used it artfully, singing sweetly and with great nuance and expression. On Sunday (it isn’t always the case) she demonstrated why she is so highly-regarded as a Händelian soprano. (At the end of the opera, on the Châtelet stage, she and Christophe Rousset were awarded the Stanley Sadie 2005 Händel Recording Prize for their “Opera Seria” disc on Naïve/Astrée.)

Possibly most impressive of all was Irish “mezzo” (sounded more like “alto” to me) Patricia Bardon: gorgeous, burnished bronze tone, great depth of texture, a strikingly powerful top range, committed, convincing acting and noble stage presence. Kristina Hammarström was especially impressive in the “coloratura” semiquaver passages, in which every note was clearly voiced and audible, despite Rousset’s cracking pace, and Lars Arvidson made more than most of the couple of arias Händel invariably gives to the unfortunate bass – at the bottom of every cast-list.

That cracking pace at times put a spot too much pressure on the singers, but that is the only criticism I might make of Rousset and his Talens Lyriques. A warm but clear overall sound, everyone always together, no tuning problems, lively, interesting continuo; and jaunty, bouncing rhythms (Rousset “dances” as much as he conducts, alternately standing and sitting at one of the two harpsichords) with everything perfectly shaped, everything just so.

The stage bristled with microphones like TV aerials on an Athens rooftop. With luck these will not have been just for the radio, but for a recording.

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