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VIVALDI: Bajazet

CD Button Sherman, Macliver, Edmonds; Lowrey, Harcourt, Adams; Pinchgut Opera, Helyard. Pinchgut Live PG007 (3)

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THE TURCO–MONGOL RULER Tamerlane (1336–1405) intrigued early opera composers, most memorably George Frideric Handel, whose Tamerlano had its premiere in 1724. Eleven years later, Antonio Vivaldi took as his title character the Ottoman ruler captured by Tamerlano. Bajazet’s libretto includes contributions from three different writers. The text is essentially that of Agostino Piovene (based on tragedies by Jean Racine and Jacques Pradon), with portions by Apostolo Zeno and that superstar of pre-1800 opera, Pietro Metastasio.

Bajazet is appalled at the prospect of his daughter Asteria marrying Tamerlano, who’s fallen in love with her. Complications arise: Asteria and the Greek prince Andronico are in love, and Tamerlano already has a fiancée: Irene, Princess of Trebizond, who’s outraged when she learns that Tamerlano has transferred his affections to Asteria. After all manner of suspected betrayals, not to mention an attempted murder (Asteria tries to poison Tamerlano, but Irene foils her), the opera ends with Bajazet’s suicide; Tamerlano accepts Irene as his bride and forgives Asteria, whom he unites with the faithful Andronico. 

The Bajazet score belongs to a genre common in the eighteenth century, the pasticcio—an opera pulled together from a variety of musical sources. (The Enchanted Island at the Met was a modern-day example.) Vivaldi composed nine of the arias, plus the extensive recitatives. But he also adapted arias from works of Riccardo Broschi (brother of the illustrious castrato Farinelli), Geminiano Giacomelli and Johann Adolph Hasse. In his invaluable CD-booklet essay, conductor Erin Helyard explains that he and his colleagues have inserted several other Vivaldi arias, while also adding the scintillating “Sento brillar nel sen,” composed by Handel for the 1734 revival of Il Pastor Fido. 

Musical rewards abound in Bajazet, with storm arias (Giacomelli’s “In si torbida,” another stupendously exciting showpiece sung by Tamerlano, complete with trumpet interjections), battle arias (listen especially to Broschi’s very aggressive “Quel guerriero,” in which Irene likens herself to an armed soldier on the battlefield), rage arias and nature arias. Andronico gets much of the most felicitous coloratura, which is particularly rewarding in Hasse’s “Spesso tra vaghe rose.” Occasionally there’s a little austerity, as in Vivaldi’s “La cervetta” for Asteria, describing the timid deer who finally finds her beloved. In the course of such a work we don’t expect full-scale ensembles (other than the principals’ singing a choral number to conclude the opera), so it is bizarre when Vivaldi’s quartet “Mostro indegno” is sung by Tamerlano, Bajazet, Asteria and Irene to end Act II.

With exceptional command of florid passages, the cast of Pinchgut Opera’s performance (recorded live in Sydney in 2015) can stand comparison with the starry lineup heard in conductor Fabio Biondi’s 2005 recording on Erato. In individuality of timbre, idiomatic textual delivery and overall communicativeness, Biondi’s principals, led by Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and David Daniels, have the edge. The standouts here are the marvelously full-toned countertenor Christopher Lowrey, as Tamerlano, and mezzo Helen Sherman, as a bold Irene. (She’s splendid in Giacomelli’s “Sposa, son disprezzata,” the opera’s loveliest aria.) Baritone Hadleigh Adams’s Bajazet has an impressively wide range and admirable energy, but he lacks vocal velvet and interpretive eloquence. One feels little for his character or for Asteria, sung by Emily Edmonds with a disappointingly generic lyric mezzo, seriously lacking variety of color. Countertenor Russell Harcourt (Andronico) has a bright but shallow tone, while the very light-voiced soprano Sara Macliver (Idaspe, Andronico’s confidant) in her first aria pleasingly imitates the murmuring breeze.

Under Helyard, Pinchgut’s original-instrument orchestra plays with palpable excitement and terrific dexterity throughout. The performance is satisfactorily recorded, although there’s a fair amount of stage noise. The CD booklet includes biographies and full libretto but an incomplete synopsis, omitting the last of the opera’s three acts.  —Roger Pines 

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