Royal Opera House – Vivaldi’s Bajazet – Gianluca Margheri, James Laing & Niamh O’Sullivan; directed by Adele Thomas; conducted by Peter Whelan

Bajazet – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Agostino Piovene with insertion arias to texts by Pietro Metastasio and Apostolo Zeno[performed using a critical edition by Marco Beghelli, published by Casa Ricordi, Milano; sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Bajazet – Gianluca Margheri
Tamerlano – James Laing
Asteria – Niamh O’Sullivan
Andronicus – Eric Jurenas
Irene – Claire Booth
Idaspe – Aoife Miskelly

Irish Baroque Orchestra
Peter Whelan (harpsichord)

Director – Adele Thomas
Set & costume Designer – Molly O’Cathain
Lighting Designer – Sinéad Wallace
Fight Director – Kev McCurdy

5 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 4 February, 2022
Venue: Royal Opera House, Linbury Theatre, Covent Garden, London

It has only taken three centuries for a Vivaldi opera to be presented at Covent Garden! But it has been worth the wait. The subject matter of this debut will be relatively well-known, however, from Handel’s Tamerlano (1724), as it covers (or rather, adapts) the same episode in Middle Eastern history and is based on the same libretto. Vivaldi annotated his copy of the text so that the opera could also be called Il Tamerlano, such as it was released recently on CD in Naïve’s superlative series of the operas in its Vivaldi Edition.

The Bajazet of the title is Bayezid I, the Ottoman sultan at the beginning of the fifteenth-century before that Turkish dynasty had completely conquered Anatolia by storming Constantinople (1453) thereby raising the emerging Ottoman Empire to the pinnacle of prestige in world history by succeeding the Byzantine Empire. Tamerlano is the famous, formidable Turko-Mongol ghazi Timur – Tamburlaine the Great as Christopher Marlowe would have it, also styled Timur the Lame on account of his injured leg – who, in defeating Bayezid during his expansive military campaigns posed one of the few serious setbacks for the advance of the Ottoman Turks as they built their empire. 

Technically this work (premiered in Verona in 1735) is a pasticcio in which Vivaldi draws on arias from his previous operas, as well as others by Geminiano Giacomelli, Riccardo Broschi (the brother of the castrato Farinelli) and Hasse. The surviving score omits some arias, so these have had to be reconstructed by borrowing music from elsewhere – the well-known ‘Vedrò con mio diletto’ from Giustino puts in an appearance, for example, in this edition, which differs slightly from Bernardo Ticci’s used on the Naïve recording, and Fabio Biondi’s for his own earlier CD account. 

As with many opera serie power struggles and romantic passions collide in this plot with explosive results. The drama opens with Bajazet already incarcerated, seeking the help of Tamerlano’s Byzantine Greek ally Andronico to see that his daughter Asteria is protected after his death. Complications arise when Tamerlano’s eye falls on her and desires marriage, despite having made vows to Irene, Princess of Trebizond, and the fact that Andronico also loves Asteria. Although there is much talk in the dialogue about thrones and empires falling under the domination of one ruler or tyrant at will, the power games which play out in this narrative operate solely at the level of personal ambitions and passions, without reference to any wider group of characters or peoples apart from the six featured roles. It is appropriate, then, that Adele Thomas’s production takes place entirely within a confined windowless room, in which Bajazet is kept tied to a lead from a hook in the ceiling like an untamed animal. That setting provides an ideally concentrated focus for the tensely nervous and violent energy of this production, running parallel with the vivid, heightened emotions of the characters – which it is the deliberate aesthetic of Baroque opera such as this to exploit through its typical structure of a sequence of highly wrought, stylised, but contrasting arias. 

Quite aside from their singing, the soloists’ acting and choreography are an impressive achievement, particularly on the part of the central trio of characters – Tamerlano’s thuggish demeanour, manifested in maddening laughter and threatening gestures; Bajazet’s flailing around within his harness; and Asteria’s wily tricks as she (nearly) fools Tamerlano and Andronico into believing her sincerity in wanting to wed the former (rather than merely using the opportunity to assassinate him). Tamerlano is correctly depicted as lame in one leg, with a brace around it, which in this context suggests that this affliction can partly explain his violent and sadistic behaviour. Regular injections into that leg provide some sort of sedative, but Andronico’s confidant, Idaspe, ironically wields the triumphant blow – during the opera’s conventional final chorus ostensibly celebrating peace, harmony, and reconciliation – as she fatally directs the syringe into his neck. 

The febrile, highly strung action on stage is matched in the music through Peter Whelan’s bracing direction of the Irish Baroque Orchestra from the harpsichord. With only eight performers (plus two horns, appearing only in the Overture, one aria, and final chorus) they really get under the skin and nerves of the animated score, but bringing flair and flamboyance to it, not merely racing through the notes motorically, which is often a temptation with Vivaldi. The composer’s arias tend to be rather shorter and more direct than Handel’s, more focused on a pristine vocal line, and so a certain tension instantly results from the quick succession of recitatives and arias when delivered with style, as here. It also seems to be a stroke of genius on Vivaldi’s part that he reserves his own arias for the ‘good’ characters Bajazet and Asteria, whilst for their bad opponents he enlists the music of the other composers, from the Neapolitan school of Italian opera, with its typically pounding bass lines creating an apt sense of menace. Just occasionally more strings in some arias would be welcome for the sake of contrast, but a range of timbres emerge in any case, such as tremolo textures in the odd accompanied recitative, and a languorous muted violin solo for the aria ‘La cervetta timidetta’.

Gianluca Margheri is a sonorous, forceful Bajazet, expressing the sultan’s unyielding resistance to and loathing of Tamerlano with compelling eloquence. His hirsute appearance also happens to resemble the portraits that exist of Bayezid I.  In the countertenor role of Tamerlano, James Laing combines exemplary musical control with an intimidating tone, at the same time as striding around the stage in agitation, with a bare bruised torso under a gown, in all respects an unpleasant, brutish upstart. 

Niamh O’Sullivan’s Asteria is assertive and bold, but not relentlessly so, realising the psychological complexity of this character as she tries to work Tamerlano and Andronico to her advantage. Claire Booth steals the show as the wronged Irene with her magnificent display of coloratura in what is essentially a rage aria, ‘Qual Guerriero in campo armato’, to close Act One – despite the flouncing exuberance of the music (by Broschi, and similar in style to his more famous ‘Son qual nave’) she remains in full command of its volley of notes. Eric Jurenas’s liquid countertenor voice conveys Andronico’s somewhat feckless nature, though he also doesn’t allow the furious displays of music to run away with him in his aria near the end, in which he interacts with the temporarily closing curtains to herald the change of fortune that comes in the conclusion of this production. Aoife Miskelly completes the cast with her crisp rendition of the role of Idaspe. 

On musical terms alone the electric verve of this performance should establish the case for more outings for Vivaldi’s operas than their very infrequent appearances at present: finishing the review on the morning after this showing, my mind still buzzes with the energy of many of this work’s arias. But Thomas’s production also shows how these operas can be made dramatically engaging for today’s audiences, and Vivaldi sceptics ought to witness what can be achieved.

Further performances to February 12

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