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Friday, November 27, 2009

The Sacrifice (on Handel's opera Tamerlano)

Nicola Francesco Haym (text), George Frideric Handel (music) Tamerlano / LA Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (the performance my companion Howard and I attended was on November 25, 2009)

The Tartar emperor Tamerlano, with the help of the Greek Prince Andronico has just defeated and captured the Turkish sultan Bajazet, who makes it clear he would rather die than remain in the hands of his foe. Only the love of his daughter, Asteria, also held captive, keeps him from death.

Meanwhile Tamerlano, who is betrothed to Irene, Princess of Trebizon, has fallen in love with Asteria, and hopes to marry her, offering his ally Andronico Irene if he will help in obtaining Bajazet's permission for Asteria to marry him.

The story grows quickly more complex when we discover that Andronico and Asteria are in love, and, accordingly, Andronico has been asked to help in his own ruin; yet he owes very kingdom to the Tartar.

The sultan rejects the proposal outright, insisting his daughter will never marry Tamerlano; but when Asteria hears of Andronico's plea on Tamerlano's behalf, she is heart-broken that her lover seemingly no longer cares for her, and she refuses to speak out against Tamerlano's proposal, which in turn leads the Greek Prince to doubt her love for him.

Like many a Baroque opera, the plot quickly grows even more complex; Irene, determined to thwart Asteria's and Tamerlano's relationship, arrives on the scene, encouraged by Andronico to pretend she is simply an emissary from the Princess, which will give her time discover his true feelings.

The very set of circumstances Handel has set in play. borrowed from Agostino Piovene's 1710 opera of the same name, results in a kind of standstill: to protect her father and out of anger over what she sees as Andronico's betrayal, Asteria must go forward with Tamerlano's wishes; Andronico cannot speak out for fear of destroying both Asteria and her father; Irene, out of pride, has no choice but to pretend she is not herself. In short, no one, save Bajazet, can or will speak out. As in all tyrant-controlled worlds, the truth dare not be uttered.

Placido Domingo plays the Baroque hero almost as if he were on a nineteenth stage, often dominating the action with his full and rich tenor voice. Since he is dramatically the most forceful figure, however, perhaps this is not as ineffective as it may first have seemed. In a sense, dressed, unlike most of the other modern-suited figures, in a glorious Turkish robe, he is the perfect foil for countertenor Bejun Mehta's high-pitched fascist rage. Andronico, sung by mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, is nearly perfect as the quieter lover, unable to speak out until Act III. With soprano Sarah Coburn, playing Asteria, their duet at the beginning of that act, a love song sung in a dissonant melody, is one of the best moments of the opera.

Again and again through this opera, the tyrant Tamerlano is rejected or betrayed, first by Bajazet, then by Asteria who admits she had hidden away a dagger to kill him on their wedding night and later attempts to poison him, and finally by Andronico, his supposed friend. By opera's end he has little left but to threaten to destroy them all, and the frenzy that his hate arouses is perfect for Mehta's expressive voice.

Yet the opera remains at a kind of stasis, Tamerlano outwardly plotting his revenge while being unable to destroy two of the people he has most loved and the other, who in his courageous outspokenness, he can only admire. Bajazet, moreover, threatens to haunt and hunt him down even from the grave.

The only release possible is Bajazet's suicide by poison. As he sways forward after ingesting his "hidden treasure" he moves between threats to Tamerlano and sweet goodbyes to his daughter and her lover Andronico. As conductor William Lacey appropriately writes of this scene:

The scene ends with Bajazet stuttering his final words,
gasping for breath, as the orchestra describes his fading
heartbeat with slowly receding repeated notes. It is an
amazingly vivid and inspired piece of work, which antici-
pates the later innovations of Gluck, Berlioz, and Wagner.

Although Asteria, demanding a dagger, threatens her own suicide, Bajazet's "sacrifice" is enough to soothe Tamerlano's hate. He is appeased. He will marry Irene and Andronico can be united with Asteria in Greece.

The final chorus of this nightmare opera is a gentle hymn to the slowly rising sun, a celebration of the transformation of night into daylight.

Los Angeles, Thanksgiving day, 2009

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