Plácido Domingo (Bajazet) & Maria Grazia Schiavo (Asteria) (Foto: Brescia and Amisano – Teatro alla Scala 2017)

Tamerlano, opera seria by Georg Friederich Händel to an Italian text by Nicola Francesco Haym, adapted from Agostin Piovene’s Tamerlano together with another libretto entitled Bajazet after Nicolas Pradon’s Tamerlan, ou La Mort de Bajazet. First performed by the Royal Academy of Music at the King’s Theatre, London, on 31 October 1724. Performances at the Theatro alla Scala in Milan on 25 and 27 september 2017.

Tamerlano: Bejun Mehta
Bajazet: Plácido Domingo
Asteria: Maria Grazia Schiavo
Andronico: Franco Fagioli
Irene: Marianne Crebassa
Leone: Christian Senn

Teatro alla Scala Orchestra on period instruments

Conductor: Diego Fasolis
Staging: Davide Livermore


Staging a Händel opera in “Verdi’s theatre” carries a high risk, but still Milano’s La Scala accepted the challenge and performed Tamerlano for the first time ever in this house. A revolution so to speak – but in more ways than one.

Stage director Davide Livermore transposed the action to the times of the October revolution in Russia. Bajazet was Tsar Nicholas II, Tamerlano a Bolshevik, appearing to be Stalin – or Lenin – or both in one figure. Also Andronico was maybe a mixture of Trotsky and Lenin. The staging was set in a train waggon in the first act, with video projections of fighting scenes, reminding of Sergeji Eisenstein’s silent movie October or making the train look like moving through a winter landscape. The second and the third acts were set in a kind of “winter palace”. All in all it was coherent in itself, accessories, costumes, uniforms – it all matched.

Yet it was not the Osman Empire in the 14th century. But – and here comes the next “revolution” – I was surprised about finding myself, a downright opponent of modern staging, liking big parts of this modernised version. It might have to do with personal history. The cruel tyrant Tamerlano, living in the 14th century, does not really terrify me. But Tamerlano, a Bolshevik, is able to awake real fear in me by emotionally reminding me strongly of my mother and my aunt, both WWII-witnesses. I remember their horror stories about the terrible cruelties of “the Russians”, especially towards girls and women. So I could almost feel those greedy hands of Tamerlano and his vassals. However, there were some strange elements in the staging, like “Leone” appearing to be Rasputin, but still I did not dislike this production as much as I usually do with modern staging.

More revolution

Revolution, next part: the cast. For Bajazet, Plácido Domingo returned to the tenor repertoire in a role he had not sung for the past five years. Even though he has never been a baroque singer, and he is past his prime as a tenor, it is amazing how the now 76 years old is able to keep up on a high performance level. To be honest, his coloratura lines sound more “Verdian” than “Händelian”, the fast trills sometimes lead him to his breathing limits – but he masters them with admirable will power and an incredibly strong vocal shape. And if some text parts were missing here and there (hey, they are repeated several times, anyway!), no one in the audience seemed to care; they were too captivated by the fascinating demonstration of his “stage lionism”.

Strong cast

In the same league, but some registers higher, was countertenor Bejun Mehta, who made his debut at La Scala as Tamerlano. His expressive and quite unique voice combined with very dramatic acting and terrifying facial expressions made him outstanding on both evenings. His “pitch colleague” Franco Fagioli as Andronico was very impressive in the high register, too. His high notes were strong and secure, but going to the lower register, the voice started to sound strained and rough at times. Asteria, Bajazet’s daughter, was sung by the young Italian Maria Grazia Schiavo. Aside of a few shrill notes on the top in the second performance, she showed a very secure voice in all registers with beautifully flowing lines, as well as a subtle portrayal of the suffering but determined daughter. Her rival Irene was Marianne Crebassa. She is an icon in the baroque opera world, and proved with her performances that this title is well-deserved. She masters shellproof lines, a natural sense of style, and impressive acting skills and stage presence. Leone was sung by the young Chilean born baritone Christian Senn who gave a solid, but a bit too light-weighted performance. Kudos to conductor Diego Fasolis and his sensitive conducting. For La Scala’s new baroque adventures a young Baroque ensemble was created from the orchestra. Given the fact that they have Verdi and Puccini in their blood, they did a very good job in this “new” genre.

All in all – two revolutionary evenings for me, and my premiere as a confessor: I will never ever become a lover of modern staging, but this Livermore’s Tamerlano was not all that bad.

Gabi Eder (Publihed on 28/9/2017)