Händel - Tamerlano

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday February 8 2015

Conductor: Christophe Rousset. Production: Pierre Audi. Sets and Costumes: Patrick Kinmonth. Lighting: Matthew Richardson. Tamerlano: Christophe Dumaux. Bajazete: Jeremy Ovenden. Asteria: Sophie Karthäuser. Andronico: Delphine Galou. Irene: Ann Hallenberg. Leone: Nathan Berg. Zaide: Caroline D’Haese. Les Talens Lyriques.

Händel
The last time I heard Tamerlano was in 2005, in concert, so I was glad to see it appear again in La Monnaie’s 2014-2015 schedule – staged, this time. Pierre Audi’s production, originally conceived for Drottningholm in 2000, is not traditional – I mean, it doesn’t attempt to reconstruct a period performance. But it is conservative to the point of austerity. “No fellatio this time," a friend noted at the interval.

The bare boards are framed by a receding succession of grey panels, blueish or greenish, depending on the lighting, with simple pilasters, and mouldings picked out in gold. They provide multiple openings to the wings for entries and exits. Only in the second half (act two of the three was split to make for one interval) does a single wooden chair make an appearance, symbolising the throne. As often in opera, the chair is much manhandled, thrown down and set up again. The scenery at the rear eventually gives way to wooden walls, and painted clouds come down to hide the moulded panels.

The costumes are period in form, beautifully cut and, for the women, stiffly corseted, but plain, in a palette of sober colours: cream, champagne, taupe, grey, plum, purple, dark blue, burgundy, brown or black. Each character’s colour changes with the acts. No extravagant wigs. The lighting is simple but well done, often from the sides and sometimes, at moments of crisis, stark.

Apart from Bajazet's eventual bare-chested ranting, the action is expressed through modest, measured, well-practised gestures and glances, a certain amount of meaningful pacing around and a little bit too much lying on the floor. Quite often, characters being thought or talked (i.e. sung) about make silent appearances. Bajazet is more expressionistic and Dickensian-looking (Scrooge-like) than the others, with long grey hair and twisted, tortured limbs. Tamerlano is sometimes courteous, sometimes serpentine and sardonic, sometimes exasperated or petulant to the point of fury. Irene is regal, with a straight back; Leone somewhat put-upon, with a bad one. Andronico and Asteria have less clearly-marked personalities, other than the usual one of star-crossed young lovers.

I'm often surprised at how unprepared people are when they come to the opera, in some cases enquiring "What have we got tonight?" as they enter the house. Like many, my Belgian neighbours plunged into their programmes at half time to see who the singers that had most impressed them were. "Asteria has a beautiful voice. And Irene - Irene's is very beautiful." In a cast that was, on the whole, excellent, Sophie Karthäuser and Ann Hallenberg were nevertheless the stars, or at any rate best suited the dimensions of La Monnaie. Both are able to project a full and subtle range of both dynamics and emotions into the house.

Beyazit I
This raised, for the ignoramus I am, the question of how casting works. It seemed odd ("a waste," said my neighbour, and the usherette agreed, saying others had made the same remark), not to cast Ann Hallenberg in the more prominent and taxing role of Andronico. She has the dramatic power that Delphine Galou (whose agility is not in question) is unable to muster, e.g. in the likes of "Chi vide mai più sventurato amante ?" and can maintain volume during rapid passages and in the lower range, making her a more suitable partner for Sophie Karthäuser. Taxed as she was, Delphine Galou came across as relatively monochrome and underpowered; it might have been more sensible to offer her Irene.

I like Christophe Dumaux, even if he always sounds and acts much the same (I've often thought that if you like Bruckner, you're glad all his symphonies sound alike). For a start, unlike some countertenors, he's audible and doesn't sound like steam escaping from a rusty pipe. He was a suitably serpentine, sardonic, petulant Tamerlano. Jeremy Ovenden (whose voice reminded me of Nigel Robson in Gardiner's recording) was an excellent Bajazet in all registers, from tenderness to rage. Nathan Berg sang Leone as a character part, if you see what I mean, whether deliberately or to make a virtue of necessity was impossible to tell. I wasn't alone in wondering. The empty stage was, however, kind to no-one, acoustically speaking, so the voices (apart from Karthäuser's and Hallenberg's) often seemed a touch remote (to be candid, I did sometimes wish I had an ear trumpet with me), and this combined with the understated production to limit the overall dramatic impact. Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques gave us their usual combination of bounce, vigour, careful shaping, and accuracy.

La Monnaie alternated performances of Tamerlano and Alcina. Here, Maestro Wenarto sings "Tornami a vagheggiar", with interesting fingerwork.

Comments

  1. Rameau as an opera composer is superior to Handel.

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    Replies
    1. ...by French Baroque standards.

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