Opera in Handel’s time thrived on murder and/or suicide (by poison or the sword), betrayal, usurpation, rape and mendacity, and all the better if their characters bore the glamour of historical reality. Handel’s “Tamerlano” had all these luscious ingredients and enjoyed a successful premiere run of 12 performances in 1724 at London’s King’s Theater. Five scheduled perfs at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion compare favorably.
The Tamerlano (Bejun Mehta) of Agostino Piovene’s libretto is history’s Tamerlane, the 14th-century emperor who ruled in the fabled city of Samarkand. His defeated rival is the Ottoman emperor Bajazet (Placido Domingo), who now languishes in Tamerlano’s prison, and frets about the fate of his daughter, Irene (Jennifer Holloway), whom Tamerlano woos. Irene finds herself in something of a trap, and is obliged to hide her true feelings; Tamerlano gets angry at everybody else, an impasse that is resolved by Bajazet’s obliging suicide.
That’s enough groundwork for 3½ hours of the L.A. Opera’s spectacle of scenery, choruses and magnificent music dramatic confrontations. Some of it is cloaked in robes and gowns, but not all. And so Domingo is stunningly decked out in regal gold and red when he bursts into a room otherwise peopled with Tamerlano’s cops, who wear contempo military garb (including street shoes). Similarly, designer David Zinn’s settings might easily pass for a suite of offices in, say, Rockefeller Center. The eye, the ear and any observer’s awareness of the Handelian style are set into jarring conflict.
Fortunately, the great, sweeping music makes amends by wrapping itself around any number of emotional catastrophes: a father’s longing for the embrace of a beloved daughter, a monarch aching to remount his throne, an arrogant usurper declaring his rights to leadership.
“Tamerlano” is a soaring score, and it is being magnificently dispatched here. In the title role there is the extraordinary countertenor Mehta at the zenith of his command of the heavily ornamented vocal line over a vast range. No less outstanding are the three lyric sopranos in the roles of deposed princesses and connivers, none of them happy at Fate’s latest mechanism: Holloway, Patricia Bardon and Sarah Coburn. As another of the connivers, basso Ryan McKinny lights up the stage for a few moments of sheer virtuosity.
Nobody pretends that modern productions of the Handelian repertory come anywhere close to what Handel may have heard, or envisioned as the sound of his music. Still, the sounds of conductor William Lacey’s small orchestral ensemble — including modern reconstructions of “authentic” instruments of, say, the acoustic realm of opera circa 1724 — project at least a believable facsimile of what that sound might have conveyed. This “Tamerlano,” together with their “Julius Caesar” of a few years ago, remains one of the most distinguished events of the L.A. Opera’s performance history. Sure, some of Domingo’s strained attempts at the complex coloratura may have ended up merely approximate. But nobody today can prove that among the tenors of 1724 there weren’t a strangulated sound or two.
What matters more is that an ancient score, loaded with stunningly beautiful music, has been made to sound wonderful.