sat 22/11/2014

Tamerlano, Royal Opera | Opera reviews, news & interviews

Tamerlano, Royal Opera

Graham Vick's masterclass on how not to do Baroque opera

Tamerlano: 'Monty Python's giant foot, which Vick resurrects as a political swingometer, is not a very sophisticated metaphor for the fluctuations of tyrannical power.'Catherine Ashmore/ROH

Graham Vick's Tamerlano is less of an opera and more of a warning. In four and half hours you see 26 ways of how not to handle the Baroque aria. Dramatic success in Handel and his psychological flights of mainly soliloquising fancy is never easy but last night's ill-fated Royal Opera House production (Placido Domingo called in sick a few weeks back) was a lesson in abject theatrical failure. Or actually 26 lessons (there are around 27 arias in all). First up in the Graham Vick how-not-to-illustrate-an-aria class: clog-dancing. Particularly not to be used as an opener, particularly not suited for genocidal tyrants in drag or for singers who, well, could sort of pass for clog-dancers.

Second way not to illustrate an aria: hyper-emoting in the manner of Celine Dion. Third: mining the sign-language of CBeebies. Fourth: using a Generation Game conveyor belt of blue elephants as a fun distraction. Fifth: avoid ornamental dancing Ottoman soldiers, unless you're working on a camp-off with the makers of The Graham Norton Show.

Sixth: steer clear of CBeebies sign-language in duet or trio form. Seventh: refrain from mounting singers on aforementioned elephants for comic or lavish effect. Eighth: avoid shoving the small, fine voice of Sara Mingardo (Andronico), the most musical singer in the cast, where no one can hear her. Ninth: don't revolve singers on giant turntables if completely and utterly and brainlessly unnecessary. Tenth: avoid any sort of sheet dance - yes, that's any dance involving the use of sheets, linen or otherwise.

Eleventh: if a character feels lost, try to think of something a bit better than having them ape a blind man. Twelfth: don't then force all the dancing Ottoman janissaries to go blind too. Thirteenth: Monty Python's giant foot, which Vick resurrects as a political swingometer (above), is not a very sophisticated metaphor for the fluctuations of tyrannical power. You get the picture. That was how the first two acts unfolded: as a collection of out-and-out missteps and befuddling oddities.

It's not even as if Tamerlano has one of those bafflingly baroque, Baroque librettos. At its core are two fascinating and eminently updatable concepts - the love of power and the power of love - and a string of pearly arias. To do so little dramatic driving or narrative sculpting of these, not to pick up on, or intelligently tease out, the numerous psychological twists and turns that are there in the musical and dramatic terrain, to summon up instead neither an accurately real, nor interestingly surreal, minimalist world, effete and ill-defined, is a serious failure of duty.

As was much of the singing. Most noticeable was Christianne Stotijn (playing Tamerlano the clog dancer), whose ravaged voice had almost split in two, and an out-of-tune Christine Schäfer (Asteria). Only Renata Prokupić's Irene had the requisite ability to control and project with real satisfaction. Kurt Streit (Domingo's replacement as Bajazet) seemed to coast a little at the start but then flowered both in character and in voice in the Third Act.

The Third Act, in fact, saw the whole production, the whole cast and orchestra, in the best form of the evening. As the drama closed in on the six characters, the mood blackening, the psychological relations spinning into extremity, so Vick was forced to start to focus his mind on the topic of human interaction without recourse to mindless frippery. Tenderness, intensity and a forward-spinning dynamic all suddenly started to bubble up to the surface as the singers began to work in ensemble. The singing tightened up. Ivor Bolton's conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, lacking the necessary bass welly in the first two acts, unleashed some ravishing melancholic playing and then, in the final quartet, skipped into the gentlest, most sunnily winning of dances. But after four-and-a-half long hours, it was far too little, far too late.

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Comments

Hi Howard - well, I'm glad I saw it (I'm a big Kurt Streit fan...) but yes, it was on the long side. I felt several times a particular aria could have been cut without losing any of the plot. The staging was a bit naff, I thought - what was that strange golden globe thing, atop a lamb, atop a fish, which drifted slowly across the stage at one point? Also, the blue elephant really didn't do it for me.... The singing was in the main, too quiet, with so much of it being way back, but I'm glad I saw it (KS was the best thing in it, IMO....) Nice sounds from the OAE.
My wife and I went last night. It was vastly overlong and some of the staging and "acting" silly; but overall we enjoyed the music and performances. Margaret, what did you think? Howard
Thanks for that, Blackadder - I'm off tomorrow. I'm sure it can't be quite as dire as many critics are saying - sometimes when I read reviews I wonder whether the reviewer & I saw the same show.... My Plan B, since it ends so late, is to throw caution to the winds and stay overnight at one of those cheapo hotels - so it had better be worth the extra expense!!
Saturday 13th March 2010 posted by Jock. Having read the various reviews, we attended the performance of Handel’s Tamerlano with some foreboding. In the event, although there were quite a few weaknesses and oddities, it was nothing like so bad as made out in some of the reviews. The main criticism was of the ridiculous Monty Python foot and orb, which must have obscured much of the view from the amphitheatre. It also resulted in much of the singing being from too far back on the already far too big stage. (We understand the production was originally intended for a more intimate theatre in Florence). This in turn resulted in the voices of Tamerlano (Stotijn), Andronico (Sara Mingardo) and Bajazet (Kurt Streit) being too subdued. There was good powerful singing from Sarah Fox, who has replaced the reportedly weak Christine Schafer as Asteria, Leone (Vito Priante) and Renata Priante (Irene), who was magnificently imperial atop her life-size blue elephant! Although it has been aptly described as a “long haul”, we quite enjoyed the evening.
The story is fairly simply told, but the conventions of the time of composition ensure that the da capo arias (some desperately difficult to sing) make any uncut performance tell it quite incredibly slowly. But to Handel it was clearly important and serious, by comparison with which 'Messiah' (say) seems incredibly superficial as a composition. The music was great, Tamerlano and Asteria were dissappointing, costumes confusing, the revolving stage and the elephant were a bit ridiculous, I wondered greatly about the purpose of the great foot and hemisphere, and I agree that the show didn't really come to life until the last act. But I was impressed with a choreography that otherwise managed to cope with the glacial pace of the story. Perhaps a purist's approach to this was a mistake. However, it all made for a memorable evening!
well said!... did anyone with any say so at the ROH actually see this in rehearsal... what were they thinking? For many people, a trip to the ROH to see (albeit he couldnt participate) Placido Domingo, was a hugely expensive treat, perhaps a special birthday celebration, certainly the experience of a lifetime. how disappointing, an almost criminal disregard for the audience and an amazing example of the emperors's new clothes that most saw through. For those unfortunate to have attended the performance it will be a talking point for years to come... who could fail to laugh as some poor chap attempted to roll his head into a sheet in an apparent attempt to empathise with the hapless andonico and asteria, completely out of synchrony with his fellows (all wearing what appeared to be black and white fairy cakes on their heads!) coupled with a slow motion revolving parade of purple elephants and men in black pyjamas (also wearing the aforementioned fairy cake headress') performing childlike flying bird impressions... were the advertising executives who successfully promote orange mobile at cinemas involved here? if you want a one word description, disasterous would be it... sell your tickets ASAP.
Yes, agree with most of the above comments on the opera concerning the first act, particularly on the hand-gestures, and clog-dancing. We are supposed to cincentrate on the purity of the singing, and not need distractions! I count myself lucky, as I left in the first interval, I think I saved myself severe boredom!
I'm going next Wednesday - not altogether as eagerly as I should be now, although I'm happy to read Mary Smiles' comment. It'll be a bit of a logistic nightmare since I've discovered it ends about 11 and my National Express leaves Victoria at 11.30... Add to that I'm smack in the centre of the front row stalls, so an early sneak out isn't really on the cards and I'm now wondering what plan B might be.
I'm going next Wednesday - not altogether as eagerly as I should be now, although I'm happy to read Mary Smiles' comment. It'll be a bit of a logistic nightmare since I've discovered it ends about 11 and my National Express leaves Victoria at 11.30... Add to that I'm smack in the centre of the front row stalls, so an early sneak out isn't really on the cards and I'm now wondering what plan B might be.
I thought this was a wonderful evening in the theatre and Graham Vick's production was truly elegant, sophisticated and full of humanity.
I agree with most of what has been said above. People were leaving after act 2. Maybe some counter tenors would have been better suited to those arias than the 2 in drag. I was embarrassed when the clog dancing started too.
We left at the second interval, as did many others judging by the queue for the coats. The above review somewhat understates the awfulness of the evening and the risible production/direction in particular. Domingo must feel that he had a near miss.
James, I completely agree with you on Stotijn's form in Das Lied von der Erde: http://www.theartsdesk.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=338:barb... In fact, I was an early supporter of Stotijn when I saw her in a DVD of Rameau's Castor et Pollux as Telaire in an otherwise pretty rotten production. But I can't say I heard anything very musical from her last night. Mingardo was much classier on that front. Clive, so glad you agree. It seemed that the audience were lukewarm but not altogether hostile to the production last night.
Clearly you're not going to tell us about ways 14-26 (which was a relief, I must say). And surely, whatever problems with her technique, Stotijn is the most musicianly member of the cast? I forgave any vocal shortcomings in her Mahler, which is one of the most moving things I've ever heard.
How refreshing to read a review of an opera I've been to that I completely agree with! Every word!

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