I'm not sure whether it's reassuring or alarming to realize that the mysterious Middle East and its Muslim religion and culture have both fascinated and terrified people for centuries before our current age. Witness, for example, the somewhat unexpected case in point of 18th century opera. Two masterpieces, Handel's Tamerlano in 1724, and Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio in 1782 both sought to exploit the public's fascination with far off lands and mystique-laden rituals. Both of these pieces never really are redolent of the culture they seek to portray--they're too firmly rooted in their composers' own idioms--but they're nonetheless two extremely apt examples of how long Islam has reached out, however subtly at times, to tap the Western world on its collective shoulder and say, "Hey, we're here, too."
Handel evidently managed to compose his epic piece over the course of a mere 20 days, which, considering the length of Tamerlano (this particular production clocks in at a bit over four hours), seems absolutely protean. The plot is the basic operatic staple of two mismatched couples who of course want other partners. In this case we have Tamerlano (Monica Bocelli, an alto taking over the role originally written for a castrato, per usual convention), Emperor of the Turks, who lusts after Asteria (Angela Bohlin), daughter of defeated Ottoman Emperor Bajazet (Placido Domingo). Asteria is, however, really in love with Andronico (Sara Mingardo), and Tamerlano seems to have completely forsaken the woman who really loves him, Irene (Jennifer Holloway). And so we get a familiar plot device wrapped up in an ostensibly Oriental package, something that no doubt delighted audiences in Handel's day, and has continued to bring new listeners to one of Handel's most assured and impressive pieces of writing.
What will probably bring most viewers and listeners to this particular 2008 production is the presence of Placido Domingo, essaying his first Baroque operatic role. It turns out to be a wonderful choice, with Domingo's still rich and pliant tenor easily gliding through Handel's melismas and making the most of such impressive arias as "Forte e lieto a morte andrei." Those unaccustomed to the operatic conceit of using women to play roles originally written for castrati may find it a bit harder to swallow Bocelli and Mingardo in their roles, but the entire cast actually acquits itself quite well, and all of the principals sing magnficiently.
This is also a very interesting and spare physical production with just enough flashes of wit and style to keep the eye entertained. The main set piece of the entire opera is a huge globe with a foot placed atop it, evidently an allusion to the Turks defeating the Ottomans. And while the bulk of the set tends to be in homogenous whites, brilliant flashes of color, as in a playful large blue elephant that makes a nice entrance in Act I, seem all the more colorful simply by way of contrast.
Paul McCreesh guides the orchestra of the Teatro Real with assurance, and delivers a rich and satisfying sound (on contemporary instruments, so none of the dry Baroque string sounds). The orchestra is extremely well balanced and Handel's unending supply of contrapuntal genius is given an abundantly clear performance here.
The only real drawback to Tamerlano is its unremitting length. Handel actually went back to the drawing board several times through his career and cut large swaths of the opera out of various performing versions, but this one seems to have it all, and then some. It's probably best taken in smaller doses--say, an act at a time, with an interval in between. That gives the viewer time to digest Handel's surprisingly intense and florid music without succumbing to the malaise of wondering if all this gorgeousness is ever going to end.
Tamerlano is a beautiful piece, full of Handel's exquisite melodies and harmonic invention, and this unadorned, yet slyly playful, production brings it home in an appealing and attractive package, with a very impressive performance by Domingo.