Pinchgut can be, and often is, commended for bringing operatic rarities into the Australian limelight. There comes a point however where rarity for rarity’s sake becomes somewhat counterproductive; some old dogs are better left lying quietly in peace. Tastes vary of course, but, really, why choose an obscure Vivaldi pasticcio when there is much better musical telling of the same story by Handel, far and away the best musical dramatist of the 18th century? Bajazet is essentially the same as Tamerlano, only the latter has far better arias specially crafted for the dramatic situations in which they occur and the whole overall structure flows more dramatically and realistically, apart of course from the ridiculous lieto fine, common to them both and most baroque operas. Once again, Pinchgut has dressed up a rather dubious candidate in lovely finery and achieved acclaim for a work that barely deserves it.

For those unfamiliar with the story, based to some extent on historical events, the Turco-Mongol leader Tamerlano (Tamerlane, Timur) conquered most of central Asia in the 13th century, including modern-day Turkey. In the opera, he covets Asteria (fictional), daughter of his captive, the Ottoman Sultan Bajazet (Bayezid I). Asteria is reciprocally in love with Andronico, a Greek (= Byzantine) prince (presumably an Andronikos Palaialogos, but the historical reality trails off at this point). Just to complicate matters, Tamalano is betrothed, sight unseen, to Irene, a princess of Trebizond (such a person did exist, but much ealier than the timeline of the operas). In the operatic versions, Tamerlano pressures Bajazet until he commits suicide, Asteria tries to kill him, but in the end he sees the error of his ways, relinquishes her to Andronico and marries Irene. As if.

About half the music for the arias (mostly culled from other operas) and all the recitatives were written by Vivaldi, the rest being the work of Neapolitan style composers, notably Giacomelli and Hasse. The score is unpublished and the edition used here was composed by conductor Erin Helyard; there is a recording by Fabio Biondi based on his edition. It is interesting to clock the differences, in terms of music used and the order of arias, but without access to the original manuscript, it is not possible to see the extent to which either is performed come scritto. Biondi indicates that the music for four arias has been lost, and whence he sourced substitutes. Helyard’s program notes do not extend to this level of detail, apart from stating that the source of the missing music was from other works of Vivaldi, and that one aria by Handel is included (Sento brillar, from a 1734 revival of Il pastor fido with Carestini).

The setting of the production by Thomas de Mallet Burgess seemed to be an English manor house, initially indicating the depredations of some sort of incursion – overturned furniture, a skewiff curtain etc, standing in for Tamerlano’s invasion of Anatolia. Some misty/foggy stuff swirled around the stage initially, while human skeletons looked down from the first row of the galleries; it may be recalled that the City Recital Hall lacks a proscenium arch. The costumes (designers Alicia Clements and Elizabeth Gadsby) indicated the more exact time of events, in Tamerlano’s Edwardian get up, and Idaspe’s floor length black housemaid’s outfit. This role, the only high voice in the cast, was originally male but is here a female character. Bajazet was somewhat more exotically clad, as was Irene, when she wasn’t otherwise disguised as another housemaid. Asteria got around barefoot in a sort of nightie affair at first, most un-Edwardian really. There did not seem to be any obvious significance in choosing this period, unless perhaps to bring World War I to mind, which we have had a considerable dose of in all sorts of media in the last couple of years. At the end, the traditional happy ending was undercut by an accumulation of corpses, which might be more realistic for us today.

As ever, the Orchestra of the Antipodes played splendidly under Helyard. As in most baroque opera, no chorus was called for, so the single piece of choral writing, the concluding coro “Coronata di gigli e di rose”, was sung by those characters still alive, a rather oddly constituted SAAAA. A strong cast produced some excellent singing and somewhat over the top acting, which served the production well and matched the florid music.

The title role was sung by New Zealand baritone Hadleigh Adams, in strong voice, if his coloratura is less than fluent. Asteria was sung by young Australian mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds who acquitted herself well in this significant role. “Amare un’alma ingrate” displayed a nice even tone, if her intonation seemed a little shaky, but it settled down later. There was a certain squalliness in her top notes, and the registers don’t seem quite integrated as yet, but obviously she has time on her side. The role of Tamerlano was taken by American countertenor Christopher Lowrey, seen last year in the fun role of Gernando in Faramondo at Göttingen (and subsequently Brisbane). He seemed to relish the part of tyrannical haughty conqueror just as much, and sang with good open rounded tone and energy, if his voice is not the largest. The rage aria “Barbaro traditor” was well sung, with a vibrant cadenza. Another mezzo-soprano artist, Australian born, England based Helen Sherman was impressive as Irene, negotiating a series of furious arias with showy ease. The fourth alto voice belonged to Russell Harcourt, another Australian, as Andronico. His voice was rather unpleasantly nasal at first, if penetrating and flexible. After the break he sounded less bleaty and attractive in the higher ranges. The small role of Idaspe was sung by well-established Australian soprano Sara Macliver, a welcome opportunity to sample the crystalline beauty of her voice with some really florid singing, rolled off with consummate perfect intonation.

Most of the audience seemed to enjoy it greatly, and it was certainly handsomely mounted and musically very well-performed. It might be hoped however that Pinchgut’s dedication to rarity will continue to be tempered by the occasional actual masterpiece; one is reassured by the scheduling of Handel’s Theodora for next year.

3.5 stars

Sandra Bowdler

(Photos : Keith Saunders)

masterpiece; one is reassured by the scheduling of Handel’s Theodora for next year.