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Teatro alla Scala

In REview Milan Tamerlano hdl 1217
Tamerlano in Milan, with Maria Grazia Schiavo, Plácido Domingo and Bejun Mehta
© Brescia/Amisano–Teatro alla Scala

HANDEL'S TAMERLANO  can be a long evening in the theater—especially when it is performed with minimal cuts and includes the additional aria for the bass, composed for a 1731 revival, seven years after the opera’s premiere in London. It was almost midnight on September 12 when the vehement death scene of Bajazet finally unfolded in La Scala’s first-ever performance of Handel’s masterwork. But it was well worth waiting for: Plácido Domingo drew on a lifetime’s experience in depicting his approaching death onstage and seemed stimulated by the originality of the music to extract new colors from his still-imposing voice. Earlier in the opera, that voice projected strongly and often eloquently in arioso and recitative but was deployed with less ease in the passagework of the formal arias, where words and notes didn’t always flow with the smooth legato we associate with this singer. 

The other voice that really filled the auditorium was that of bass-baritone Christian Senn, who sang and acted solidly in the supporting role of Leone. The rest of the cast seemed less generously endowed for a house as large—and as problematic in its acoustics—as La Scala. The singers were all perfectly audible, but only rarely did their voices fill the auditorium with sound, making the wooden tiers of boxes resonate in turn. Things sounded better when the singers moved forward to the front of the stage, as in the duet (“Vivo in te”) for the lovers Asteria and Andronico in Act III. Maria Grazia Schiavo and Franco Fagioli sang the piece with compelling grace and musicality, capturing the pathos of Nicola Haym’s text. Throughout the evening, the soprano made stylish use of an agreeable, flexible voice that acquires real luster above the staff. The countertenor employed his cleverly managed instrument—which includes a relatively strong chest register and a vibrant top—to decidedly varied expressive effect, ranging from a haunting delivery of cantabile to spectacularly rapid coloratura. Fagioli had a formidable rival in Bejun Mehta, who sang the title role, but the American countertenor’s voice, with its higher center of gravity and straighter sound, is more inclined to petulance in recitative, although he delighted the audience with Tamerlano’s dazzling arias. As Irene—the long-suffering woman who finally wins Tamerlano’s hand—Marianne Crebassa offered polished phrasing and gesture. The French mezzo’s handsome voice was expertly maneuvered. 

However, the impact of Crebassa’s performance, like that of her colleague Schiavo, was blunted by the superficial, though technically astute, direction of Davide Livermore. Livermore chose to highlight the brittle sophistication of these noblewomen, rather than the deeper motivations in their emotional lives. The beautiful, elegant costumes by Mariana Fracasso were ultimately alienating. Livermore’s decision to transpose the action to revolutionary Russia (cleverly timed in this anniversary year) lacked any musical or textual motivation, although it did offer a pretext for some striking settings, designed together with Florian Boje, Cristiana Picco and Claudio Santucci. The mise-en-scène featured a train traversing a snowbound landscape in Act I and an aristocratic residence (viewed from varying perspectives) later on. Because Livermore seemed more intent on paying homage to the well-worn clichés of Baroque opera stagings than on investigating the dramaturgy devised by Handel and Haym, his Tamerlano production was little more than a concert in costume, albeit a picturesque one. 

The performance was never less than musically intense, thanks to the leadership of Diego Fasolis, who generated a real sense of drama in the pit, where twenty-three members of the Scala Orchestra (playing on period instruments) were joined by ten players from Fasolis’s own (Swiss) orchestra, I Barocchisti. The singers couldn’t have asked for better support, though occasionally the allegros seemed a little too predictably regular in their momentum. —Stephen Hastings

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