Lovers of Baroque opera faced an enviable dilemma at the Royal Opera House on Friday evening. On the main stage was Handel’s Theodora, while a few levels below, Irish National Opera presented their new production of Bajazet in the Linbury Theatre – the first time a Vivaldi opera has played at Covent Garden. While Handel´s oratorio is all profound seriousness, Vivaldi's pasticcio is an energetic romp, full of dazzling coloratura showpieces. Take two rival kings, two scheming princesses, one bent on revenge, the other on power, and a weak-willed prince – it’s Game of Thrones in operatic form. In an electrifying production by Adele Thomas, the talented cast give such a musically and dramatically thrilling performance that it’s hard to remember the last time I enjoyed myself so much at the theatre.

Gianluca Margheri (Bajazet)
© Kip Carroll

Baroque opera has eluded many directors, with its convoluted plots, reams of similarly-named characters and static arias. Clever lighting turns the unit set, a golden box with a giant chain for the imprisoned Bajazet, into a prison cell, reception room and dining hall as needed, and allow the costumes, monochromatic in royal blue, to really pop. Thomas draws fabulously vivid performances from the entire cast, and it's wonderful to see a production where the dramatic intent is so clearly mirrored by musical choices in tempo and ornamentation. Take note of the attention to the dramatic intent of the da capo arias – Thomas has the remarkable ability to turn restatements of text into the most natural thing in the world. Musical purists may be taken aback by the amount of grunting, screaming and props being flung about in this highly physical production, but I’ll take that over a static concert performance any day.

James Laing (Tamerlano) and Niamh O'Sullivan (Asteria)
© Kip Carroll

Vivaldi’s alternative title was Il Tamerlano, and indeed the opera is dominated by the rivalry between the two kings. Gianluca Margheri’s Bajazet combined tremendous stage presence with a sonorous, velvety bass-baritone. The role has no showpiece aria – instead, he has a series of dramatic accompanied recitatives, and Margheri declaimed beautifully in his native tongue to capture the character’s rage, desperation and affection. You couldn’t take your eyes off him, crouched in a corner like a caged animal, before he exploded in furious, testosterone-driven rage in the final act. James Laing’s Tamerlano was the perfect dramatic foil, repulsive and sexy in equal measure. He’s presented as truly a monstrous character from the beginning, making his final act of magnanimity incomprehensible – Thomas deals with this in a sensible though unsurprising way. Laing has a great deal of fun with the role, and if his grainy countertenor is not conventionally beautiful, he is a consummate vocal actor.

Gianluca Margheri (Bajazet), Eric Jurenas (Andronico), Niamh O' Sullivan, Aoife Miskelly (Idaspe)
© Kip Carroll

Bajazet’s daughter Asteria is the love interest of both Tamerlano and the Greek prince Andronico, but Niamh O’Sullivan's captivatingly dark mezzo makes it clear that this is no ingénue character. Dressed in a ratty gown, she stalks around in search of vengeance with an Elektra-like dramatic intensity. It’s her gorgeously long-lined “La cervetta timidetta”, though, that stopped the show in a moment of heartrending beauty. As her ex-lover Andronico, countertenor Eric Jurenas married a fluidly beautiful tone with a wonderful physical humour. Andronico doesn’t have much to do dramatically, an immature prince amidst a sea of political schemers, but he does get two gorgeous arias which Jurenas dispatched with polish and refinement.

Aoife Miskelly (Idaspe) and James Laing (Tamerlano)
© Kip Carroll

Similarly, the servant Idaspe is somewhat detached from the machinations of the plot, serving as both bystander and narrator. Soprano Aoife Miskelly possesses the most beautiful instrument in the cast, revealing an exquisite pearly soprano in her opening “Nasce rosa lusinghiera”. Miskelly’s “Anche il mar” dazzled with her consistency of tone and confident coloratura. Someone needs to cast her as Cleopatra immediately – I’ll be there in the front row! But it’s Claire Booth’s barnstorming Irene that ultimately walked away with the show, imperious and entitled as the power-hungry princess. She also gets the opera’s most famous arias, “Sposa son disprezzata” (borrowed from Giacomelli´s Merope), presented here as a moment of cynicism rather than as the typical lament, and “Vedrò con mio diletto”, sung with a melting legato. Booth’s high coloratura sits marginally too high for the role and her coloratura became unruly under pressure, but the sheer audaciousness of her fiery “Qual guerriero” set the evening ablaze.

Claire Booth (Irene) and James Laing (Tamerlano)
© Kip Carroll

The evening was overseen by conductor Peter Whelan, directing the Irish Baroque Orchestra in a vivid performance. Following a shaky start in the overture, the 11-piece orchestra played with unflagging enthusiasm and fine attention to detail. The evening zipped along much faster than the 3 hour runtime would suggest. Don’t miss it! 

****1