Dull Tamerlano

Handel’s Tamerlano cries out for a Regie approach because it’s basically boring. The motivation of the characters is so oddly straightforward that the plot(1) seems inevitable right up until the utterly implausible ending and character development is all but impossible. Unfortunately Regie is exactly what we don’t get in the 2001 production of the work from the Halle Handel Festival.  Jonathan Miller directs and attempts to convey the story in an entirely straightforward way with the barest minimum of support.  The very small stage is furnished with a couple of screens and a chair/throne.  The brightly dressed characters (costumes by Judy Levin) basically wander about and sing.  Any drama is entirely dependent on the acting ability of the cast, which varies.  Tom Randle as Bajazet acts rather well throughout and Anna Bonitatibus is a fiery Irene (complete with a riding crop which she shows every sign of being willing to use and thus provides the obligatory Handel opera BDSM reference) but Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz as Asteria, although very easy on the eye, seems capable of no more than stock gestures from the Dummies Guide to Baroque Acting.  Graham Pushee is a bit better as Andronico but his simpering acting coupled with being a fairly “thin” counter-tenor does come off as a bit effeminate.  Maybe the worst acting of the lot comes from Monica Bacelli in the title role.  She is a sort of low energy Snidely Whiplash (with Snidely like moustache) and manages exactly one emotional register and no hint of menace from beginning to end.  The whole thing feels like a rather dull semi-staged performance.

As to the music, one has to say that the playing and singing are very good.  Everybody can do what’s needed and there are some interesting variations on the normal “voice” one hears in Handel.  Randle and Bonitatibus in particular can sound quite dramatic.  Trevor Pinnock conducts the English Concert so no problems there.  The problem is the music itself.  It’s horribly unvarying.  The first two hours plus go by in a series of reciitatives and da capo arias at what seems to be a constant andante soporifico.  The first lively number comes well after the two hour mark and is so surprising I jumped out of my chair.  It finishes a little stronger with a couple of pleasant duets and the obligatory closing ensemble but this really is not Handel at his best.

Helga Dubnyicsek is the video director.  She really doesn’t have much to work with so, for once, the succession of close ups, angle changes and dissolves seems almost a relief.  The picture is 16:9 and normal DVD quality.  The sound is Dolby 5.1 (LPCM stereo option) and is pretty decent though not as vivid as some more recent releases.  Subtitles are English, French, Spanish and Japanese.  There’s an interesting subtitle option called “Score plus”(2) which projects the score onto a faded out picture of the action.  There a couple of bonus interview features.

There is one other video version of Tamerlano available. It’s from Madrid with Placido Domingo as Bajazet and it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray from Opus Arte.  I think it will be a long time, if ever, though before I sit through this one again.

fn(1) Bajazet, formerly Ottoman emperor has been captured by the Tartar leader Tamerlane.  Bajazet hates Tamerlane unreservedly because (a) he won and (b) he sees him as a lower class usurper.  Bazajet spends most of the opera wishing he was dead but only manages to poison himself right at the end.  Bajazet has a daughter, Asteria, who hates tamerlane because that’s the filial thing to do.  Asteria is betrothed to Andronucus, a Greek client king of Tamerlane.

Tamerlane is betrothed to the Greek princess Irene but decides, for unspecified reasons, that he wants to marry Asteria instead and palm Irene off on Andronicus.  There are multiple misunderstandings as Asteria appears to go along with this while really intending to kill Tamerlane.  She makes two hamfisted attempts to do so which don’t seem to bother Tamerlane as much as attempted murder of a head of state usually does.  Finally Bazajet poisons himself which (why?) causes Tamerlane to repent.  Tamerlane marries Irene, Asteria marries Andronicus and the obligatory triumphal ensemble is sung.

fn2 This is what “Score plus” looks like:

Giulio Cesare in Australia

Opera DVDs from Australia are as rare as Canadian ones and for the same reason. The national broadcaster’s approach to the arts would put the Philistines to shame so opera broadcasts from which DVDs can be produced are passing rare. The one under review here is a 1994 production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare from the Sydney Opera House.

There’s a lot to like about it. The stage production by Francisco Negrin is fairly conventional but attractive to look at and contains some very effective touches. He makes good use of an apron in front of the pit and he uses the rather minor character of Nireno to some effect as a sort of silent chorus on the action. Costumes are sort of 1900ish with odd touches like breastplates and Egyptian dancers and supers in white body and face make up. Sets are mostly simple with typical Egyptian iconography. Cleopatra is naked in her bath when she receives Caesar which would probably be too much for the more staid North American houses today, let alone twenty years ago. The choreography by Gregory Nash makes very effective use of a talented group of dancers. Best if all from the point of view of watching on DVD the video direction by Peter Butler is very respectful of Negrin’s intentions and gives us a real good view of all of the action.

On top of that there is some excellent singing especially by Graham Pushee in the title role. Not everyone likes to see a countertenor in this role but Pushee makes a good case for it. He’s fuller toned than most and has excellent control of his coloratura and ornamentation. He’s also a very good actor. Overall, he may be the best in this role that I have seen. The Tolomeo of Andrew Dalton makes a good foil. He’s a reedy, nasal counter tenor of an older type but that works quite well for the weak and scheming character he portrays. The Achilla of Stephen Bennett is also top notch building to a fine climax in Act 3 with “In tal’ modi si premia”. Rodney Gilchrist as Nireno doesn’t have a lot to do vocally but he’s present and contributing so much of the time that he deserves a special mention. The orchestra under Richard Hickox uses modern instruments but doesn’t go heavy or mushy.

I was initially somewhat ambivalent about Yvonne Kenny’s Cleopatra. I’ve got used to this role being sung by much younger singers than the 44 year old Kenny and it has to be that she looks and sounds very mature for Cleopatra. That said she sings with great gusto and bold coloratura. She acts well too but she does struggle a bit to be the sex kitten who seduces the stuffy Caesar. Despite this by the third act and, especially, her really committed “Da tempeste il legno infranto” I was pretty much won over by her sheer enthusiasm. There’s something of the same problem with Rosemary Gunn’s Cornelia. It’s hard to think of Ms. Gunn as the bombshell who has half of Egypt lusting after her, despite a pretty decent performance overall..

What’s not to like? Not too much really. Elizabeth Campbell’s Sesto is a bit shrill and generally not very convincing dramatically. The biggest negative though is the technical quality of the disk which scarcely does justice to Butler’s efforts. The sound, Dolby 2.0, is OK but the 4:3 picture really isn’t all that great. There’s no way one can fit 207 minutes of opera onto a single DVD9 and have great video quality. 4:3 doesn’t help either as the stage is the sets are wide but not very high (so I guess an extra bonus point for avoiding the close up trap). The subtitles are English only and the documentation is limited to a chapter list. Bottom line, a good effort rather spoiled by el cheapo production for disk(1).

This version does have the merit of being inexpensive but it’s up against strong competition from Copenhagen and Glyndebourne. Both houses offer much more recent productions at much higher technical quality. At a price.

fn1. This performance appears to be available in a different package outside North America. It has Dolby 5.1 and DTS sound tracks and, I suspect, is spread across two disks. Certainly the track numbering n the version I watched and the way it behaves if played with vlc suggests two VIDEO-TS folders crammed onto one disk.