Handel wrote Tamerlano in 1724 while in London, completing it in a 20 day dash between composing Guilio Cesare and Rodelinda, two operas for which he is far better known. And though the libretto follows a standard Baroque opera pattern, with the inevitable sexual-political intrigues, ambiguity and attendant consequences at play in the private lives of famous historical personalities, in Tamerlano, everything seems unusual and drawn to extremes. Tamerlano is Handel’s cruellest hero, the opera's catharsis sadder and more tragic than any he ever wrote and recitatives are longer and more numerous than in any other Handel opera.

John Mark Ainsley © John Mark Ainsley
John Mark Ainsley
© John Mark Ainsley

It was performed 12 times after its première, and during that run Handel made many changes to the opera’s structure and its cast. But the arrival of Italian tenor Francesco Borosini, who had already sung the title role in Handel's favourite opera, Gasparini's Bajazet, triggered perhaps the most important change; it is not known with certainty if it was because of Handel's fascination by Borosini's voice but, unusually for a tenor role at the time, Bajazet, the part Borosini played in Handel's Tamerlano, took much more dramatic space and became the opera's main role, paradoxically overshadowing the title character.

English tenor John Mark Ainsley sang Bajazet, the defeated Ottoman emperor, with subtlety and ease. He gave a convincing performance as an imperial father who preferred his own death rather than witness his daughter's humiliation, excelling in the long and demanding aria di sostenuto when he commits suicide by poison at the opera's climactic end. Ainsley executed the aria without excessive pathos by giving it adequate dramatic shape.

Xavier Sabata © Julian Laidig
Xavier Sabata
© Julian Laidig

Spanish countertenor Xavier Sabata, with his silky alto timbre, was excellent as the rough and ambiguous character of Tamerlano, the Asian conqueror who falls in love with Asteria, his prisoner Bajazet's daughter. Sabata's vocal agility and natural expressivity was especially beguiling in one of the most beautiful of Handel's aria agitata “Dammi pace o volto amato” where his vocal subtlety and flawlessness in his middle range were especially moving.

Fellow countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić wowed the the audience, not only by wearing a stunning Roi Soleil costume but also with his passionate, colourful depiction of the morally divided Andronico, a character written for great divo at the time, Senesino. Cenčić's vertiginous leaps from soprano to contralto range were brilliantly highlighted in the most memorable showcase of the piece, the aria “Più d'una tigre altero” which received well deserved cheers.

Soprano Sophie Karthäuser, as Bajazet's daughter, offered the audience a proud and humiliated Asteria with her high precision and soft-edged coloratura. Bass Pavel Kudinov was remarkable as Leone by bringing the most out of this secondary role with his two arias. Ruxandra Donose, wearing a gorgeous red and black dress, stressed Irene's importance through her excellent projection and well rounded mezzo timbre.

Young Russian conductor Maxim Emelyanychev led Il pomo d'oro with passion, drawing out the ensemble's virtuosity. Through his energetic leadership, he tailored a  wealth of colourful gestures in absolute harmony with the contours of his colleagues' performance.

The concert performance ended with one of saddest Handel's choruses: “D'atra notte già mirasi a scorno” which left the audience almost in tears, but with enough energy to repeatedly cheer the excellent performers.