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George Frideric Handel: Tamerlano, HWV 18 (1731 version)
Xavier Sabata (Tamerlano), John Mark Ainsley (Bajazet), Karina Gauvina (Asteria), Max Emanuel Cencic (Andronico), Ruxandra Donose (Irene), Pavel Kudinov (Leone), Il Pomo d'Oro, Riccardo Minasi (conductor)
Recorded at the Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy (April 2013) – 184’15
3 CDs Naïve V 5373 – Libretto in Italian, English, German and French, Notes in English, German and French

Is it possible too have too much vocal beauty over a three-plus hour stretch?

There are several recordings of Tamerlano which is understandable as the work is one of Handel’s richest, providing juicy roles for all the principles. The crystalline brilliance of this recording allied with the expressive beauty of each and every voice add up to a glorious issue.

The plot is built upon an historical event that occurred in 1402 when the Mongol/Turkic warlord Tamurlane captured the Ottoman sultan Bayazid I (whose name became rendered as Bajazet in numerous plays, poems and operas). In this version Bajazet is shown as understandably restive in captivity. Tamerlano offers Bajazet’s lieutenant, Andronico, the throne of Byzantium and the hand in marriage of Irene. Tamerlano has been engaged to marry Irene but has designs on Asteria, Bajazet’s daughter, who was happily intended to marry Andronico. If she marries Tamerlano her father's life will be spared. In true opera seria fashion, these entanglements get a thorough airing. The various resulting reactions and emotions are vividly expressed under the alert baton of Riccardo Minasi.

The one role where vocal allure might have been compromised by drama is that of the manipulative tyrant of the title role sung by counter-tenor Xavier Sabata. (He has also released a solo album of Handel arias with Minasi entitled Bad Guys.) In the initial scene with the other counter-tenor (Andronico) the voices are too much alike. But subsequent scenes for Tamerlano express musically a good degree of head-tossing hauteur - all very effective. Max Emanuel Cencic as Andronico reveals an equally attractive voice (and I see that Cencic is also credited as an executive producer of the recording and contributor to the artistic concept).

John Mark Ainsley expresses wounded dignity most persuasively in one of Handel’s most outstanding tenor roles. (The following year he composed the role of Grimoaldo in Rodelinda for the same tenor, Francesco Borosini.) Ruxandra Donose is an ardent Irene and Pavel Kudinov makes the most of the brief role of Leone, Andronico’s confidant.

As wonderful as everyone is, the superstar of the cast is Karina Gauvin as Asteria. While voicing the varied emotions of the role she also expresses the sheer joy of singing.

Violinist Riccardo Minasi founded the chamber group Il Pomo d-Oro has recently as 2012. There is no list of instrumentalists but I assume the photo of 14 players represents the forces used. It is all very alive and sinewy and I eagerly anticipate more from them.

As mentioned above there are several recordings of this opera, many of which are highly regarded. Whether or not you already have one, I can’t recommend this one too highly.

Michael Johnson




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