I knew next to nothing about George Handel's opera Tamerlano prior to attending LA Opera's company premiere of the composer's 1724 work on November 21. While I have a mixed reaction to the production, the opera's themes — musical and political — are timely and perhaps more pertinent now than ever.
Inspired by the historical saga of Mongol warlord Timur the Lame (a.k.a., in Italian, Tamerlano) and his showdown with conquered Turkish sultan Bajazet, Handel reportedly wrote the score in only three weeks. The libretto, by Nicola Francesco Haym, is fairly minimal, allowing Handel's lovely melodies to carry the lengthy plot (at nearly four hours, including two intermissions).
The unprepared may be startled by this as well as the opera's small cast: there are six principals and no chorus. What's more, some who took in LA Opera's production on opening night were surprised by some of Handel's specifications and/or director Chas Rader-Shieber's choices in casting and staging.
Countertenor and former boy soprano Bejun Mehta assays the title role of the villainous Tamerlano, and does so fabulously. He is lithe of voice and body, and effectively conveys a despot's pride and power. However, Mehta's performance presents an immediate challenge to anyone who believes male roles in opera are limited to tenors, baritones and basses. Mehta addresses this in a fascinating podcast interview, in which he likens the struggle to embrace his unique singing voice to the coming out process for GLBT people.
Also, the role of Andronico, the young prince who has been carrying on a secret love affair with Bajazet's daughter, Asteria (a vocally-assured if somewhat bland Sarah Coburn), has been played by men in some previous stagings of Tamerlano but can also be cast as a "pants role" with a female in the part. Rader-Shieber and LA Opera go the latter route, with Patricia Bardon an excellent, convincing Andronico.
Having two females play the central love story, though, in an opera that is essentially about the subjugation of an exotic people by a militant force intent on stripping them of their rights makes a biting impression in post-Proposition 8 California. It is possible that only GLBT viewers will pick up on this, but I believe it reveals a particular sensitivity on the director's part.
Rader-Shieber reinforces this, intentionally or not, through his updating of the opera's 15th-century setting to the 20th century. Tamerlano, his security forces and Andronico wear more modern attire reminiscent of past fascist regimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Bajazet and Asteria, on the other hand, wear more traditional, colorful garb inspired by their Byzantine source.
The great Placido Domingo plays Bajazet in this limited-run production, which closes December 1. He was in fine voice during the opening night performance, although he seemed to grow tired and jumped his musical cue at the opening of Act 3. Still, he splendidly portrayed the proud but defeated sultan trying to protect his daughter from a forced marriage to their captor.
Tamerlano's orchestra, under the assured, passionate direction of William Lacey, was superb on opening night. The musicians' mastery of the material permitted Handel's gorgeous music to shine through; at the performance's conclusion, the entire orchestra was rightfully invited on stage to take repeated bows along with the singers.
The opera's length and limited, oft-repeated lyrics can be daunting, especially to the uninitiated like myself. That being said, I encourage readers to sample Tamerlano, if not in LA then elsewhere or on CD or DVD where available. This unique, history-based tale can accurately be called timeless.
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.