GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Tamerlano, HWV 18 (1731 version)—Xavier Sabata (Tamerlano), Max Emanuel Cenčić (Andronico), John Mark Ainsley (Bajazet), Karina Gauvin (Asteria), Ruxandra Donose (Irene), Pavel Kudinov (Leone); Il pomo d’oro; Riccardo Minasi, conductor [Recorded at the Villa San Fermo, Convento dei Pavoniani, Lonigo, Vicenza, Italy, in April 2013; Naïve V 5373; 3CD, 193:18; Available from Amazon, fnac, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]
The musical genius and theatrical savvy of Georg Friedrich Händel were never on more eloquent form than in 1724, when the finest of his talents were engaged by the composition of three of his most memorable scores for the London stage: Giulio Cesare, Rodelinda, and Tamerlano. A setting of a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym that explores a theme familiar to 18th-Century Britons via plays by Christopher Marlowe and Nicholas Rowe, the last of these was premièred by one of the finest casts assembled for the first nights of any of Händel’s operas: the alto castrati Andrea Pacini and Senesino as Tamerlano and Andronico, soprano Francesca Cuzzoni as Asteria, tenor Francesco Borosini as Bajazet, contralto Anna Vincenza Dotti as Irene, and bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi as Leone. The complex, oft-distorted history of the Tartar Emir Timur fascinated artists both in Händel’s time and beyond, the character having been depicted on the operatic stage in Vivaldi’s pasticcio Bajazet, Mysliveček’s Il gran Tamerlano, and, via Carlo Gozzi’s 1762 play, Puccini’s Turandot [in which the kindly old man whose grief for Liù proves so critical to the opera’s resolution is largely a product of Puccini’s imagination], but Händel’s portrait of the petulant, power-mongering conqueror is surely the most vivid that 21st-Century observers are likely to encounter. Only a misguided historian would go to the opera in search of factual verisimilitude, but the listener with an open heart who spends an evening with Tamerlano will encounter reservoirs of sentiment rare for music of the 18th Century. Händel’s Tamerlano is hardly the bold warrior and political fox of history, but he is a fascinating creature whom an alert singer can endow with charisma and magnetism. It is the trio of the suffering Asteria, her noble but flawed father Bajazet, and her ardent lover Andronico who emerge from Händel’s score as people of genuine passions, however. They are pawns in Tamerlano’s games, and they know it, but they play their parts with unwavering integrity. A modern criticism of Händel’s operas is that their characters do not ‘live’ as those in the scores of Verdi and Puccini do, that Cleopatra and Cesare do not make love in tones as obviously sensual to 21st-Century ears as those of Gilda and the Duca di Mantova and that Bertarido does not lament the inconstancy of conjugal devotion and fidelity with the fervor of Filippo II. This is to misunderstand the special qualities of Händel’s music, however. This recording of Tamerlano, spearheaded by Parnassus Arts Productions and benefitting from the affectionate scholarship of Giovanni Andrea Sechi, puts the perfervid emotions of the opera’s sextet of characters into an appropriately stylish context, but this is not a performance in which singers impersonally pursue historically-informed perfection. They are people reacting to one another, defying danger, daring to love and to hope to be loved. They are master musicians, but ultimately it is not technical skill that lingers in the memory: it is the mercurial splendor of Händel’s score; or, more hauntingly, the splendor with which is it sung.
Under the direction of Riccardo Minasi, the twenty-one instrumentalists of Il pomo d’oro deliver a performance that reverberates with energy, excitement, and feeling. The playing of Maxim Emelyanychev at the harpsichord and Simone Vallerotonda on theorbo, archlute, and Baroque guitar shapes a continuo remarkable for its responsiveness to the dramatic heartbeats of Händel’s music. Vitality and momentum are maintained in secco recitatives, but Maestro Minasi and the players do not hesitate to linger over moments of greatest lyricism. The virtuosity of Il pomo d’oro’s playing is complemented by an inspiriting sense of involvement in the performance. The intimacy of the recorded sound contributes to the consciousness of a collaborative artistic experience rather than a conventional performance in which singers, orchestra, and conductor are separate entities. There is an inviolable unity of purpose that permeates every moment of this performance, and the eloquence of Maestro Minasi’s conducting and Il pomo d’oro’s playing, which want for nothing in period-appropriate stylishness but transcend inelastic adherence to dry academic concepts, fosters an environment in which Händel’s exacting vocal lines seem the only natural means of communicating. Employing a recreation of the edition of the score that Händel created for the revival of the opera in London in 1731, when Senesino reprised his portrayal of Andronico and was joined by Campioli in the title rôle, the celebrated Anna Maria Strada del Pò as Asteria, Giovanni Battista Pinacci as Bajazet, Francesca Bertolli as Irene, and Antonio Montagnana as Leone, this recording exudes a continuity lacking in many performances of Händel’s operas. Every delicacy of Tamerlano is embraced by Maestro Minasi, and the nuances of his approach are brought to life with sensitivity and tenderness by Il pomo d’oro.
If contemporary accounts of Boschi and Montagnana are credible, few basses in recent years have combined bravura technique and dramatic presence with the histrionic power of their 18th-Century forebears. Russian bass Pavel Kudinov, who in 2010 sang Escamillo in Bizet’s Carmen and Sarastro in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Bolshoi, proves in his performance of Leone’s music a worthy heir to the mantle of Boschi and Montagnana. A lively presence in recitatives, Mr. Kudinov gives robust accounts of Leone’s arias. ‘Amor dà guerra e pace’ in Act Two is sung with wit and wonderfully burly tone. Borrowed from Händel’s 1727 Riccardo primo and inserted into Act Three of the 1731 revival for Montagnana’s benefit [ironically, the aria was originally composed for Boschi, who created the rôle of Isacio in Riccardo primo], ‘Nel mondo e nell’abisso’ tests Mr. Kudinov’s coloratura prowess, and he displays admirable flexibility across the full range of the music. Rarely, Mr. Kudinov possesses both the requisite strength for Leone’s musical character and an attractive voice. A friend of emperors and princes, this Leone is a suitably noble gentleman, and the Irene of mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose is a seemly addition to his society. Like Mr. Kudinov, Ms. Donose has experience in a wide array of operatic rôles, and her mastery of bel canto facilitates an intuitive focus on placement of tone across the span of Irene’s music. In Act One, Irene’s aria ‘Dal crudel che m’ha tradita’ is bitingly sung by Ms. Donose, and throughout the performance she elegantly expounds the legitimacy of Irene’s cause. Having been betrothed to Tamerlano, she has been set aside in favor of Asteria, and the initial failure of her pleas for preservation of her honor—delivered in disguise—inspires her to principled sparring on her own behalf. Both her aria ‘Par che mi nasca in seno’ and arietta ‘No, che sei tanto costante’ in Act Two are sung with firm, burnished tone, the righteousness of her quest for justice conveyed by the unwavering versatility of her singing. In Act Three, when Irene’s crisis reaches its climax, Ms. Donose’s singing of ‘Crudel più non son io’ rings with conviction and cunning. The walnut colorations of Ms. Donose’s timbre are inherently regal, and Irene’s music is an ideal fit for both the proportions of the voice and the best qualities of her technique, with only a handful of notes at the top of her range lacking authority.
Bajazet is one of the most captivating characters in Baroque opera. Stern, unyielding, proud to a fault, and even wrong-headed, his actions are justified to an extent by his royal pedigree and love for his daughter. He spits violence and vengeance for virtually the entire duration of his part, but an intelligent singer can instill the sensibilities of a broken man into his performance of the rôle. In this recording, tenor John Mark Ainsley is an uncommonly direct, emotionally candid Bajazet whose calm, unfeigned depiction of the character’s paternal affection softens the cruelty of the part. This discernment is for naught if the music is not capably sung, and in this regard, too, Mr. Ainsley’s performance is exceptionally effective. In Act One, his singing of ‘Forte e lieto’ and ‘Ciel e terra armi di sdegno’ boils with rage and indignation. The irony and subtle inflections that Mr. Ainsley communicates in ‘A’ suoi piedi’ in Act Two are prickly but stirring, and the joy of a father reunited in spirit with his daughter floods his singing of the arietta ‘No, no, il tuo sdegno.’ His lines in the terzetto ‘Voglio strage’—the sole holdover from the 1724 version of the score—are bold and defiant, matching the attitudes of Asteria and Tamerlano. The agony of the accompagnato ‘E il soffrirete, d’onestade, o Numi’ gives way to a tremendous paroxysm of determination in ‘Empio, per farti guerra,’ which Mr. Ainsley sings with tempestuous spirit and invulnerable virtuosity, his intonation remaining admirably fleet at top speed. The restraint with which Mr. Ainsley shapes his performance of Bajazet’s suicide scene, one of the most original innovations of Händel’s score, gives the character’s death the aura of genuine tragedy. The poise of his delivery of the accompagnato ‘Fremi, minaccia; mi rido,’ the grandiose ‘Oh sempre avversi Dei’ the touching arioso ‘Figlia mia, pianger, no’ and ‘Tu, spietato, il vedrai’ sets his performance apart from every other Bajazet on records, and his portrayal of the complicated, confounding man is ultimately magisterial and moving. As dramatic artistry, Mr. Ainsley’s Bajazet is the work of a great actor. Musically, his compact timbre has never sounded lovelier, and his vocalism is the work of a great singer.
Countertenor Xavier Sabata offers a more pragmatic Tamerlano than many performances enjoy. The puerile hotheadedness of the man is conveyed with rollicking assertiveness, but there is an alluring reactivity in Mr. Sabata’s performance. Tamerlano is the sort of part that is perfect for his dynamic singing, and he makes splendid impressions in every line of his rôle. The arias ‘Vuò dar pace’ and ‘Dammi pace’ in Act One are sung colorfully (and it is interesting to note that such a bellicose man sings so frequently of peace), and Mr. Sabata’s performance of ‘Bella gara che faranno’ in Act Two is richly suggestive. Vocally, Mr. Sabata does his most impressive singing in the aria that demands nothing less, the barnstorming ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato’ in Act Three. The insurmountable virtuosity with which he negotiates his music’s divisions, both in ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato’ and throughout the opera is phenomenal, and he manages to sound self-congratulatory, dangerous, and strangely sexy without forcing or distorting his wonderful voice. There are a few instances of ‘hootiness,’ particularly in the vicinity of register breaks, but he cleverly uses these to his advantage, casting the cloak of villainy over occasional unlovely sounds. He seems to be having a truly rip-roaring time, and he creates a Tamerlano who sounds as though he might cut his rival’s throat on a whim but would show him a grand time before wielding the blade.
For the past decade, Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin has been one of the reigning divas of Baroque repertoire, but none of her recordings more completely exhibits the expanse of her gifts than this performance of Asteria. From her first utterance, she projects the girl’s shattered innocence, and the moxie with which she adapts her vocalism to the shifting fortunes of her character is outstanding. Her singing of Asteria’s first aria, ‘S’ei non mi vuol amar,’ crackles with indignation, and the suppressed heartbreak in her performance of ‘Deh, lasciatemi il nemico’ leaps from the radiant sound of her voice in coloratura passages. The piquancy of Ms. Gauvin’s singing of ‘Non è più tempo no’ never fully disguises Asteria’s overwhelming love for Andronico, and the coruscating but never disfiguring sadness that emits from her singing of ‘Se potessi un dì placere’ at the end of Act Two shimmers in her assured, gorgeous vocalism. The great aria ‘Cor di padre’ is sung by Ms. Gauvin with incomparable beauty of tone and depth of feeling that stops time. No less unanswerable is the passion that courses through her singing of the arioso ‘Folle sei, se lo consenti.’ Musically and dramatically, the zenith of Ms. Gauvin’s performance is the duet with Andronico, ‘Vivo in te,’ in which her voice intertwines with that of her Andronico with unmistakable sensuality. It is perhaps the greatest affirmation of unalterable love in any of Händel’s operas, and Ms. Gauvin ascends to an apogee of expression that transcends the accurate singing of notes: were it possible to distill the whole essence of love into sound, it could be not be more potent than in Ms. Gauvin’s singing in ‘Vivo in te.’ In every phrase that she sings in this performance, her voice remains rounded and arrestingly beautiful, and her ornamentation is both restrained and refined.
In ‘Vivo in te,’ the singing of countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić soars into the heavens in tandem with that of Ms. Gauvin, and he inhabits this exalted plane of articulation throughout the performance. Atypically for a rôle composed for Senesino, whose grasp of Händel’s most challenging bravura music was acknowledged by even the most critical of his contemporaries, the nucleus of Andronico’s music is comprised of concentrated outpourings of profound emotion. Mr. Cenčić’s singing of ‘Bella Asteria’ glows with adoration, and the conflicting heartbreak and yearning in ‘Benché mi sprezzi’ course through his pained but composed performance. The certitude of his account of ‘Cerco invano di placere’ awakens untold streams of endearment, and the sheer electricity of his delivery of the daunting ‘Più d’una tigre altero’ is startling. Even here, Mr. Cenčić’s technique is untroubled by the most exorbitant of Händel’s demands, and he is more careful here than in almost any of his previous recordings to ally his ornaments to the scope of the text. The intensity of his singing of the arietta ‘No, che del tuo gran cor’ depicts the sincerity of his connection with Andronico’s plight, and the quiet disenchantment that glistens beneath the surface of his performance of ‘Se non mi rendi il mio tesoro’ engages sympathy for his character’s unrelenting anguish in a way that alters perceptions of the opera as a whole. It is likely that Senesino achieved this, but his voice cannot have given greater pleasure than Mr. Cenčić’s. The latter’s voice is a wonder of nature and careful training, as Senesino’s surely was, and Mr. Cenčić is an artist who is never content to accept conventions unquestioningly. In truth, it is the extraordinary beauty of his voice that becomes conventional in this performance of Tamerlano, and he finds in Andronico a rôle that calls upon the best of his artistry and receives it.
There are in the long history of recording opera so few instances of performances undertaken solely for studio microphones stripping away artifice, disinterest, and coldness and getting at the hearts of composers’ scores. This recording of Tamerlano was bolstered by preparations for a production that will be heard in several cities, but it was what might be termed a musical preemptive strike. The most troublesome aspect of many studio recordings is the antiseptic pseudo-perfection: the singers simply seem to not be listening to each other. This Tamerlano is the rare recording that plays out as a genuine performance of an opera rather than a concert presentation of arias. It is very much a team effort, but the accomplishment that makes this recording special not just as a performance of Händel’s Tamerlano but as a milestone in recorded opera is that Karina Gauvin and Max Emanuel Cenčić embody an Asteria and Andronico whose tribulations are as ravishing and redeeming as Aida’s and Radamès’s, Brünnhilde’s and Siegfried’s, or the Marschallin’s and Octavian’s. It is a performance of an opera composed 290 years ago that sounds bewilderingly new.