Just as we celebrate Handel’s 330th birthday this week, the Dutch National Opera is reviving, for a short run, the production of two operas by the dear Saxon: Tamerlano and Alcina. Originally conceived by director Pierre Audi in the early 2000s for the small Baroque Drottingholm Palace Theatre in Stockholm, the staging of both works is a decidedly uncluttered affair, which elegance is well matched with maestro Rousset’s period orchestra Les Talents Lyriques’ refined sound.

Christophe Dumaux (Tamerlano) and Sophie Karthäuser (Asteria) © La Monnaie de Munt
Christophe Dumaux (Tamerlano) and Sophie Karthäuser (Asteria)
© La Monnaie de Munt

For Tamerlano, which opened on Tuesday night, Patrick Kinmonth’s stage sets are a simple frame of wood-panelled columns enhanced with guild, that disappear in Act III to unveil a backstage of wooden planks: a reconstitution of the bare inner-shell of the 17th century Swedish theatre. Mr Kinmonth’s costumes are modelled in the 18th century fashion, understated and sumptuous at the same time. Their folds and the shine of their fabrics are enhanced by Matthew Richardson’s horizontal lighting. The austere sets contrast with an intricate work in Personenregie. Characters enter and leave the stage in a continuous ballet. Their poses and gestures are almost those of classical theatre, but strangely, behind this retinue, their rage or despair remain palpable. In the pit, conductor Christophe Rousset’s elegant hands chisel delicately detailed sounds from his excellent Talents Lyriques.

Composed in 20 days in the same year as Giulio Cesare and Rodelina (1724), Tamerlano is far less popular than its contemporaries. This is probably due to the fact that it depicts characters in a claustrophobically enclosed space,  without much action throughout the three acts. It tells the story of the Ottoman sultan Bajazet who has been defeated and is held captive by the Tatar king Tamerlano. Tamerlano has fallen in love with Bajazet’s daughter, Asteria, and decides to force her into marrying him, while cancelling his betrothal to Princess Irene, who he offers to Andronico, a Greek prince, who happens to secretly love Asteria. At the end, Tamerlano still marries Irene and Andronico marries Asteria, but only after Bajazet commits suicide by poisoning and dies in one of the most strikingly realistic death scenes of Baroque opera.

Sophie Karthäuser (Asteria) and Delphine Galou (Andronico) © La Monnaie de Munt
Sophie Karthäuser (Asteria) and Delphine Galou (Andronico)
© La Monnaie de Munt
More than the title role, the real hero of the story is Bajazet. It is really a matter of taste and some of my opera-going companions strongly disagree with me, but I found tenor Jeremy Ovenden’s singing quite disappointing as the sultan. His timbre is not particularly appealing; the high notes were shouted and his ornamentations often sounded sloppy. Theatrically however, he gave a very strong performance, portraying a Bajazet broken and driven close to madness by defeat and a degrading captivity. His final death scene was arresting and earned him much applause.

French countertenor Christophe Dumaux obviously likes to play the bad guys, and those roles certainly suit his handsome posture and instantly recognisable timbre. He treated the public to some dazzling coloratura singing (“A dispeso d’un volto ingrate”). Yet Tamerlano is not Tomeleo and, ideally, to portray the Tatar war lord, I would picture a voice with more volume and power. A lack of power is also what marred the performance of the French contralto Delphine Galou as Andronico. Her singing is without doubt stylish and elegant, but her muffled sound is far from what I imagine the star castrato Senesino, for whom the role was written, would have sounded like. Her velvety timbre however contrasted beautifully with Sophie Karthaüser’s in the duet “Vivo in te” which was one of most memorable moment of the evening.

The female part of the cast gave altogether much stronger performances. Sophie Karthaüser gave a very moving portrayal of princess Asteria. She was especially poignant of her great aria “Cor di padre”, in the da capo section of which she demonstrated an exquisite sense of ornamentation. Princess  Irene’s entrance was an event in itself, such is the regal stage presence of Ann Hallenberg. The Swedish mezzo’s rich tone and impeccable technique made me wish this role of seconda donna would be more extensive so we could her more of her singing.  As her servant Leone, Nathan Berg gave a good rendering of “Nell mondo, nell’abisso”.

***11