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Not Cencic's finest hour
, 9 April 2014
This review is from: Handel: Tamerlano (Audio CD)
"Tamerlano" is an oddball in Handel's operatic output - an attempt to follow the glittering success of "Giulio Cesare in Egitto" with a more downbeat lyric tragedy, complicated by a last-minute decision to give a new Italian tenor a big death-scene at the opera's climax. Handel probably regarded it as failed experiment, and only ever gave it one revival.
This element of "difference" has made the opera attractive to recent performers, not least to Placido Domingo, who toured Europe and the US singing the tragic tenor part in 2008, a performance preserved on DVD. There is also an excellent 2006 CD recording led by George Petrou with a Greek cast, and two earlier CD sets by John Eliot Gardiner (1985) and Trevor Pinnock (a Sadler's Wells production in 2001), neither entirely satisfactory, but with some good singers, and things to say.
I am afraid that this new offering from Riccardo Minasi does not compare well.
Singers first. Xavier Sabata, a regular second-string falsettist to Cencic, sings the title role with reasonable control. Cencic himself (much involved in organising the cast) does not have a good day in the Senesino part. Its coloratura often runs clean across his break and he has more trouble than usual concealing this. That he mostly eschews his trademark high-wire screeching pleases me, but will not please his fans. Karina Gauvin (in a Cuzzoni role - she specialises in them) sounds tremulous, scoops and yelps, and does not even pretend to trill. Ruxandra Donose (who sang Cenerentola at Glyndebourne in 2007) is more agile and can sing a trill, but sounds oddly woolly and unfocused. John Mark Ainsley is by far the most accomplished singer present, technically and stylistically, his voice in very good shape. His presentation of Bajazet's death scene is probably the best on disc musically, because he does not sentimentalise (as Domingo inevitably did) - yet, sad to say, he fails from a dramatic perspective, simply because he is the wrong sort of tenor. He sounds as if he is singing Jephtha, a part Handel wrote for the English tenor, John Beard; but Borosoni, who created the role of Bajazet, had the lower, darker voice of a pre-Rossini Italian tenor, what we might call a high baritone - much like the voice of the elderly Domingo in fact. Ainsley just does not sound old or angry enough to make Bajazet credible.
From an instrumental and sonic angle the recording strongly resembles those of Alan Curtis, indeed it was made in one of his regular venues. It sounds like a private performance in a palace - a tiny band, a small acoustic, and the voices at the front of the mix. This matters: Handel's Operas are primarily theatre-pieces - "Tamerlano" very much so. The players are of the modern Italian school, with scrawny violins who thwack their bows onto the strings, a skiffle-group theorbo, and an over-enthusiastic double bass. The continuo team seems to lose its place from time to time. Riccardo Minasi holds things together fairly well, and has the great merit of not rushing coloratura arias (not many of these in "Tamerlano"), but he has not yet learned to keep Handel's "pathetick" music moving forward. Slow, affecting arias were Senesino's trademark and Handel wrote him several such numbers in "Tamerlano". Cencic dies the death in them, partly because he does not have the breath control to sustain their lines, but mostly because they lack momentum. For the same reason, even Cuzzoni's great number "Cor di Padre" sounds dull.
The box tells us that the "1731 version" was used. 1731 was Handel's one revival of the piece: he kept to his original intentions, but pruned the recits pretty savagely, to suit English taste. Minasi makes these cuts, and puts in an extra bass aria Handel wrote for the revival. His text is best thought of as a sensibly shortened original (a vast improvement on Gardiner and McCreesh who invent their versions): only Petrou gives us Handel's intended 1724 text (Petrou also includes the extra bass aria as an appendix).
There is one very odd moment at the end of the second act, when Donose declaims the words of an arietta over the music, and then sings it. That Minasi lets her get away with this bizarre behaviour rather confirms my suspicion that he does not yet have enough knowledge or experience of baroque opera, particularly Handelian opera, to be making recordings of it, no matter how many names-of-the-moment he has in his team.
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