George Frideric Handel - Tamerlano
La Monnaie-De Munt, Brussels, 2015
Pierre Audi, Christophe Rousset, Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Dumaux, Jeremy Ovenden, Sophie Karthäuser, Delphine Galou, Ann Hallenberg, Nathan Berg, Caroline D’Haese
La Monnaie Streaming - February 2015
Pierre Audi's direction of Alcina for La Monnaie didn't inspire me to visit the Handel opera it was paired with, Tamerlano, in any kind of a hurry. Patrick Kinmonth's elegant Handel-period costumes and the beautiful simplicity of the old-style theatrical backdrops might have suited the baroque theatre at Drottningholm in Sweden that these two productions were originally designed for, and it might have served the music beautifully and have drawn attention to the drama, but Alcina still felt very dull and mannered, as opera seria can do if not treated with a little more invention.
Tamerlano however, coming from the composer's most celebrated period and following Giulio Cesare, ought to have a little more going for it. Even within the confines of the opera seria format, dealing with a ruler who plans to marry and thereby break up other happy plans and romantic arrangements before eventually showing clemency to his enemies and sorting everything out, Tamerlano's musical qualities, characterisation and sense of human emotions in conflict, reaction and interaction with each other, is surely unsurpassed until Mozart returned to the opera seria and a similar theme in La Clemenza di Tito.
It was something of a revelation too to see Harry Bicket's period performance with a countertenor Tamerlano on the Arthaus DVD recording of the work at Halle in 2001. Even within a basic period Eastern setting, you could see how Handel's score with its rhythms and melodies gradually developed characters and sowed tensions between them in a way that led up to a fraught and deeply involving human drama. It's the drama that counts in Tamerlano and, reportedly, Pierre Audi's intention for this production and for Alcina was to remove any superfluous elements and let Handel's sense of dramatic construction speak for itself. Even with Christophe Rousset conducting with precision and authenticity, and with an exceptionally good cast, it's still difficult to see what if anything Audi's direction brings to the work.
Tamerlano, in fact, is even more sparsely decorated than Alcina. Kinmonth's 18th century period costumes are the dominant feature of the production design, the actual set for the whole three hours of the three acts consisting of nothing more than a line of highlighted pillars set down each side of the wings. On the stage itself, there is nothing on the stage other than a single chair used in Act III, and only the bare minimum of props - a scarf, a vial of poison. Any setting of mood or situation is done though lighting, and even that is restricted to the occasional spotlight to pick out the singer from the surrounding darkness, with little use of colour, or even any indication of day or night settings.
If the intention is indeed to similarly draw attention to the drama as it is enacted by the performers alone, it fails completely. Many traditionalists bemoan modern presentations with the claim that you'd be better off closing your eyes, or switching off the screen in the case of a DVD recording, and just listening to the music, but Pierre Audi's production is an instance where you might as well enjoy the beauty of the music since the staging has absolutely nothing to offer or contribute to putting across its dramatic content. It's not entirely static or mannered, there are some background walk-ons when others are referred to, so you can follow exactly what is going on, and there are one or two old-style painted panels lowered into place at significant points to great effect, but it's really not enough to lift Tamerlano out of its opera seria mannerisms.
Whether it's an impression enforced by the staging, Christophe Rousset's conducting of Les Talens Lyriques also fails to enliven or touch on the heart of the work. The performance is impeccable, the quality of the individual playing, the beauty of the instruments and the interaction between them is measured and precise, but for it's a little too precise and the rhythms are a little too jerky stop/start in the French manner that doesn't suit Handel quite so well. There's fine singing here from Christophe Dumaux's countertenor Tamerlano, Jeremy Ovenden's Bajazet, Sophie Karthäuser's Asteria, and a delicate charming Andronicus in Delphine Galou. It's in the duet 'Vivo in te mio caro bene' where true feelings are revealed and shared for the first time that Handel transcends the confines of the opera seria structure and touches on the human, and Karthäuser and Galou sing it beautifully, with unadorned simplicity and true feeling.
It's at this point too that Audi allows the harsh edges of the set to soften with billowing clouds lowered to frame the two lovers, which fits perfectly and has impact, but it turns out to be an isolated gesture. That is clearly the intent, undoubtedly in the belief that it is all that is needed and that Tamerlano can work on its own terms. It does, musically and in terms of the singing performances, but there's still nothing here to engage the viewer with the visual aspect of the opera or its drama. You could dispense with the stage direction, and listen to this on a CD and it would be just as good. Which is just not good enough.
Links: La Monnaie, Culturebox