In spite of the regained popularity that followed Placido Domingo’s debut as Bajazet in 2008, performances of Handel’s Tamerlano remain a rarity. It is a quirky coincidence that it would be programmed twice in the space of nine months in the same city. Those in Amsterdam that missed last February’s revival of Pierre Audi’s production with Les Talens Lyriques were given another chance to hear this work at last Sunday’s concert performance by Il Pomo d’Oro at the Concertgebouw. It was an enjoyable performance, with first-class singing delivered by a starry cast, but it however did not really overcome the intrinsic austerity of the work.

Composed in 1729, within 20 days in the same year as Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda, Tamerlano is far less popular than its contemporaries. For all its exquisite music, it is a difficult work to pull off, certainly in a concert setting. It is a dark piece, the darkest opera Handel ever wrote, and its grim atmosphere leaves relatively little space for showcasing bright vocal fireworks. The ratio of recitatives versus arias is rather high. Most importantly, the story-telling is minimal: the main theme is the sadistic psychology and mind-games of a ruthless ruler. The action unfolds slowly, behind closed doors. In a nutshell, the Tatar leader Tamerlano (the historical character Timur, or Marlowe’s Tamburlaine) holds the vanquished Ottoman Sultan Bajazet (Bayezid) captive and eventually drives him to suicide.

Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata portrayed a particularly vicious and hot-tempered Tamerlano, allowing himself more theatrical effects than his colleagues. His velvety timbre, almost too seductive for the tyrant’s tantrums, did wonders in the fiendishly virtuosic aria “A dispoto d’un volto ingrato”.

Romina Basso’s stylish singing had the class one would expect from the Princess of Trebizond. As her servant, Leone, Pavel Kudinov displayed a warm and flexible bass. The role of Andronico, a Greek prince torn apart by opposing loyalties, is a perfect fit for the noble timbre of Max Emanuel Cenčić who, as spectacular as he is in fast virtuosic music, is even better in slower cantabile passages. The aria “Bella Asteria” was a moment of grace.

As Asteria, Bajazet’s daughter and Andronico’s love interest, soprano Julia Lezhneva appeared at first to have slight tuning problems. This was atypical for a singer I have heard in past performances launch with impeccable accuracy into the most jaw-dropping entrance arias. She very quickly recovered however and treated the audience to some thrilling singing. “Cor di padre, e cor d’amante”, sung with endless legato and exquisite ornamentation, won her some of the loudest applause of the performance.

Young Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev conducted from behind his harpsichord, his forces of Il Pomo d’Oro showcasing their virtuosity. Waving his hands in the air and sometimes literally jumping on the podium, he launched into an energetic performance. A tad too energetic perhaps at the very beginning of “Più d’una tigre altero”, when Mr Cenčić had to stop and ask him to start again – what followed was simply superb. Yet, I could not help feeling at times that he could not always prevent the dramatic tension from running out of steam.

The dramatic tension was however certainly sustained during the remarkable scene of Bajazet’s suicide, at which the opera climaxes. This scene, possibly the most realistic of death scenes in all Baroque opera, is what paradoxically makes the defeated Sultan Bajazet the central character of the opera over and above the title role. Tenor John Mark Ainsley gave an arresting performance of the sultan’s death, the weakened broken phrases, contrasting with his earlier haughty contempt for his enemy.