Whether or not Placido Domingo’s presence would have lifted the dynamics of this decidedly flaccid evening one cannot say. It’s hard to imagine him amidst the dispassionate chic of Richard Hudson’s whiter than white gallery-like setting with its allusions to suns and moons and the universal orb of power.
Indeed it is his character - the Ottoman ruler Sultan Bajazet - that we first see lying prostrate in defeat beneath the said orb. A giant foot bears down on it like a football, symbol of how mere mortals are but playthings of the gods. But Bajazet rises in defiance bearing this entire “universe” on his shoulders. And with four-and-half hours to go, that’s just about as dramatic as it gets.
The trouble with Graham Vick’s undeniably poised and stately staging - stylised to within an inch of its life like some exhibit from opera’s minimalistic past – is that it essentially relinquishes all dramatic and emotional liability to the performers themselves. That, you may argue, is what Handel opera is all about: the arias dictate the pace and energy and momentum of the evening. But for that you need singers who can fill a house like Covent Garden and infuse those arias with a very real and immediate sense of their emotional journey. Ivor Bolton and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment offered all the motivation and encouragement they could muster from the pit - but even from my forward position in the stalls instrumental and vocal sound felt diminished by both the scale of the house and the staging.
Who on earth imagined that Christianne Stotijn – a singer whose lack of stage experience was embarrassingly apparent - could dominate the evening as the bloodthirsty Tartar Tamerlano? The voice is anyway in a poor condition with a break so pronounced that every other note is now unrelentingly chested for emphasis. One wonders, too, whatever happened to Christine Schafer’s disarming purity and security of line? As Bajazet’s quietly heroic daughter Asteria much of the singing was strangely occluded and colourless.
Kurt Streit certainly sang Bajazet more incisively than Domingo would have done – and more than filled his shoes in terms of authority and that most elusive of commodities: gravitas. Renata Pokupic - bright, open, and seductive of voice – also made an impression as Irene, Tamerlano’s would-be betrothed.
But without doubt the evening’s most special singing came from Sara Mingardo as Andronico, her cultured soft-grained contralto and wholehearted connection with text possessed of an intimacy that was ultimately somewhat overwhelmed by the scale of the show. That, I guess, was the elephant in the room – a blue one at that.
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