Tamerlano Blog 1 (10 Feb 2010)

Today I start rehearsals for Tamerlano, one of the greatest operas Handel ever wrote. Its premiere was in 1724 and took place less than a mile away from today’s Royal Opera House. It was preceded and followed by two masterworks, in the first case Giulio Cesare and the latter Rodelinda, both operas now well known to British audiences. This trilogy was written within twelve months and constitutes an achievement described ‘as without parallel in operatic history’!  Quite a claim. One which I happily go along with, being crazy about Handel and having conducted all three of these operas in recent years.

The ROH production (by Graham Vick) originated in Florence at the Maggio Musicale, Italy’s biggest classical music festival. I find the production to be a profound representation of the human drama Handel and his librettist Nicola Haym fashioned. The story of the imperious, brutal, all-conquering warrior Tamerlano and his noble Ottoman adversary Bajazet was well known to the 18th-century London public and inspired Handel to write, for the part of Bajazet, his greatest operatic tenor role. Now as then the success of a Handel opera depends on having a wonderful cast. We are fortunate, not only in having Plácido Domingo and Kurt Streit sharing the role of Bajazet and Christine Schäfer and Sarah Fox taking the part of Bajazet’s daughter Asteria, but also in having the rising star mezzo Christianne Stotijn and distinguished Italian contralto Sara Mingardo taking the castrato parts of Tamerlano and Andronico (originally sung by Pacini and Senesino, no less).

We begin at the beginning of Act II with the scene between the imperious Tamerlano and a hesitant Andronico, dismayed to find Tamerlano innamoured and determined to marry Asteria. Graham directs with great precision, charting the emotional temperature and development of every exchange. Tamerlano in particular is confident, but gradually becomes irritated by Andronico’s constant questioning and responses to his remarks. This sets up perfectly his following skittish and edgy aria ‘Bella gara’ (‘Lovely conquest’) which itself stands in marked contrast to Andronico’s heartfelt and inutterably beautiful ‘Cerco in vano di placare’ (‘I seek in vain to placate’).

The day is long, we rehearse for three sessions most days and the work is detailed, with ornamentation, appogiaturas as well as the deeper musical aspects to be addressed. At the end we have covered a lot of ground.

The day ends even better with my beloved Arsenal’s defeat of Liverpool. Arsene Wenger will prove his doubters wrong again!