As did many other Baroque composers, in 1735 Antonio Vivaldi tidied up a few arias from previous operas he'd written, borrowed several others from composers he respected, set the music to an old libretto, inserted some recitative and presto, came up with Bajazet for the Verona Carnival season. This old, new, borrowed and, it’s hard to resist, blue concoction (the plot is far from upbeat), or pasticcio, might hardly have been expected to outlive its times but almost 300 years later, Pinchgut Opera has given Bajazet striking visual, vocal and musical form as part of its exploration of Baroque opera beyond the limits of repertory frontiers.
It's the first time Bajazet has been staged in the Southern Hemisphere but for around 80 years since it was first set to music in 1711 by Gasparini, after Agostino Piovene's libretto, it was popularised by no less than 25 composers. Based on the capture of the Ottoman Emperor Bajazet (Bejazid I) after his defeat by the Timurid ruler Tamerlano (Timur) in the Battle of Ankara in 1402, its complex story of power and revenge is played out with brutal force across a cultural divide amidst personal battles of love, lust and honour until Bajazet drinks a poison rather than be murdered by Tamerlano.
Director Thomas De Mallet Burgess appears to have baked up his own pasticcio for the stage. In bits of this and that, it's not exactly clear in what period of time Alicia Clements' design work placed us. On the surface, an early 20th century drawing room/library of a neoclassical palatial Rhode Island mansion came to mind – white-walled, chicly furnished in 'modern' reproductions and draped in red with objets d'arts on show. A gramophone was tucked away in a corner and six skeletons either side of the stage balconies peered down on events as perhaps victims of Tamerlano's brutal reign.
Intended or not, over this layer De Mallot Burgess appeared to adhere to the punctuated progression of the aria/recitative with scenes shaped by entrances and exits, becoming rather like pieces of performance art, each as visually intriguing as the objets d'arts within, each directed with insightful detail. As events unfolded, the characters became highly sculptured, psychologically rich and just as contradictory as anyone can be. A little-known historical event gained an approachability of sorts via a thrilling reduction to a dinner party that went ghastly wrong.
Matthew Marshall's lighting added switched-on dramatic flair to the visually stunning staging. Each scene, however, tended to end with a soloist exiting double doors after their aria, the audience applauded and another scene began. The pasticcio principle felt structurally in control over the opera’s three-hour length. Nonetheless, the characters were legibly portrayed by a truly fine cast of singers demonstrating great vocal stamina.
Held captive, Bajazet doesn't feature heavily on stage but when he does Hadleigh Adams conveyed the prisoner’s unalterable hatred for Tamerlano with adrenalin-charged conviction and the sense that his presence was always near. Although Adams' fulsome, tempered baritone beat the air with spirited forcefulness, he inclined to lose shape at full volume.
As Tamerlano, Christopher Lowrey strutted about with pride in his evil deeds amongst showcases of skulls and plunders of war, making his lustful advances and sly looks a seemingly harmless attribute. With a smooth vocal line and a command of riveting rapid passages Lowrey's vivid and flexible countertenor suitably expressed the power of Tamerlano's position.
Bajazet's daughter Asteria, calculating in her acceptance of Tamerlano's desire both to marry her and rile her father at the same time, was given fervent know-how by soprano Emily Edmonds with a glimmering high soprano, rich in technique and expression.
Countertenor Russell Harcourt rang with impressive vocal consistency as Andronico, the Greek prince in love with Asteria, an ally of Tamerlano who is used as a pawn, eventually suffering in death alongside Asteria. Characterised by a beautifully aspirated smooth falsetto that comfortably reached dizzying highs, Harcourt gave a memorable performance.
When Irene, the princess of Trebisond entered to seal the deal for a promised marriage to Tamerlano, an eye-catching exotically jewelled dress was outdone by Helen Sherman's jaw-dropping portrayal of her. With an attractively dark mezzo-soprano full of depth and striking register shifts, Sherman portrayed a woman to be reckoned with in Irene's opening aria, "Così la sposa il Tamerlano", a viciously long aria full of scorn for being received coldly by Tamerlano. Later, as a trusting cohort then exhibiting signs of a psychologically suspect esteem, Sherman performed with distinctive dramatic and vocal skill.
Conservatively dressed in black Sara McCliver lent interesting uneasiness to the stage as Andronico's friend Idaspe. Evocatively sung with an incisive and angular, pure-voiced soprano, McCliver, created a character reflecting the tensions underlying the plot as she made herself intermittently noticeable as both bystander and participant.
Throughout Vivaldi's score, it was Erin Helyard's voluptuously gestured and passionate conducting that bound the pasticcio with the greatest force. Helyard doctored a luscious reading of the music, adding rump and exposing sinew within his fleshy, vibrant interpretation. On period instruments, musicians of the Orchestra of the Antipodes responded with energy and precision, just as exciting to watch as the action on stage. Horn players Darryl Poulsen and Doree Dixon stood out for their sensitive and balanced playing.
It takes time to grapple with and digest Bajazet but after the short season is over there is no doubt Pinchgut Opera’s production will be remembered for its splendid visual, vocal and musical form. Hold onto that because you’re unlikely ever to see it again.
Find Opera now