Handel: Tamerlano review – Minasi's conducting is second to none

Gauvin/Donose/Sabata/Cencic/Ainsley/Il Pomo d'Oro/Minasi

Premiered in 1724 and revised in 1731, Tamerlano is one of the richest and most complex of Handel's operas, and also among his most difficult. Its subject, daunting by any standards, is the psychopathology of power. Tamerlano is better known in English as Christopher Marlowe's Tamburlaine the Great, the Tartar warrior, who, in Handel's interpretation as in Marlowe's play, is bent on the destruction of the Ottoman empire. But where Marlowe views his anti-hero as a ruthless militarist, Handel presents him as a psychological sadist playing lethal mind-games with his cast-off mistress Irene, the deposed and captive sultan Bajazet, the latter's daughter Asteria and her lover – Tamerlano's unwilling political ally Andronico.

It's remarkable stuff, at once slow moving and edgy. Unusually for Handel, the central conflict is not primarily erotic. The tragic protagonist is Bajazet, whom Tamerlano eventually drives to suicide, and Handel's principle aim is the gradual accumulation of tension over a protracted span.

The scenes between Asteria and Andronico are shot through with the composer's quintessential sensuousness, but elsewhere there's an austerity in the soundworld and an angularity in the thematic and melodic material that results in a darkness of mood unique in Handel's operatic output.

Its starkness makes it tricky in performance: the Royal Opera House notoriously came a cropper with it in 2010, stupendous though it was. This recording gets it absolutely right. The great Xavier Sabata makes Tamerlano the most insidious and dangerous of psychopaths, though his tonal glamour also lets us fully understand why Ruxandra Donose's carnal-sounding Irene is so besotted with him. John Mark Ainsley's noble, harrowing Bajazet has rarely been bettered. Karina Gauvin's strikingly assertive Asteria is beautifully foiled by Max Emanuel Cencic's amorous, vocally spectacular Andronico. Conductor Riccardo Minasi's conducting is second to none, too, and the work's severity and sensuousness are wonderfully captured by Il Pomo d'Oro. This is one of the great Handel recordings and very highly recommended.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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