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Domingo, a Lion in Winter in 'Tamerlano'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008

Among the possible reactions to Plácido Domingo's second recent foray into the unfamiliar world of baroque opera -- in Handel's "Tamerlano," which opened at the Washington National Opera on Wednesday night -- are a purist's horror at his stylistic inaccuracies, and a human being's admiration for the guts and, yes, nobility of his performance. Domingo does not have to do this. He could walk through some role he's done a hundred times before, even if his voice may not live up to memories of his prime. He could comfortably retire. He does not have to go out and find some challenging new role that he can still put across convincingly, learning half a dozen arias and what one singer described as "gobs of secco recitative" in a musical style in which he is not altogether at home.

Instead, he took on the part of Bajazet, a conquered ruler set adrift in a new world order that has been imposed upon him, surrounded by the shards of his own past. In vocal terms, these shards were the heroic gleam of his darkening voice, the ardor of an Otello bursting incongruously out of Handel's recitatives; in visual terms, they took the form of a pile of objects -- books, carpets -- shoved in the corner of an empty room. For in this opera, directed by Chas Rader-Shieber, Domingo represents the perfect fusion of form (the role he is playing) and content (the way he sings it).

On Wednesday, Bajazet and his daughter Asteria (played by Sarah Coburn) were the only color in a dark world. Rader-Shieber cast the malevolent Tamerlano (the star countertenor David Daniels) like one of Saddam Hussein's sons: a sinister slick operator in a shiny Western business suit and silk tie, surrounded by the black-uniformed goons of a police state. Amid the dark suits, in their emptied palace, Bajazet and Asteria were startlingly bright in their gorgeous traditional robes. And similarly, Domingo added vocal color and energy to every scene he was in.

In recent years, Handel's landscape has become familiar terrain to operagoers (though less to those at the Washington National Opera, which has not been a notable Handel stronghold); directors such as Rader-Shieber have become adept at working with the 18th-century opera seria form (which means, basically, one solo aria after another); and aficionados have argued that Handel was a powerfully dramatic composer. Yet a performance with the intensity of Domingo's is rare. Blowing open the conventions of contemporary performance practice, he sang as if he didn't know, or didn't care, that baroque opera is supposed to be light. His was not a well-mannered performance. It did not have clean coloratura. It evoked the roar of a wounded lion. Fortunately, this fit the opera's plot perfectly, but it still created a basic uncertainty about whether the piece was an ensemble effort or the Plácido Domingo Show: The answer was a little of both, indicating a worthy but questionable product.

When Domingo does a new role with his own company, you can expect a handpicked group of singers, down to the smallest role: Andrew Foster-Williams, a young English bass-baritone, made his American stage debut in the usually forgettable role of Leone and powered out his arias with show-stealing force, if not much more baroque style than Domingo himself. Particularly strong was Patricia Bardon, an Irish mezzo with a voice like thick cream, who was so convincing playing a man (the prince Andronico, who loves Asteria) that at least one audience member thought she was a countertenor. Coburn's Asteria, for her part, had a Carmen-like presence paired with a soprano that was light but intense enough to qualify her as her father's daughter; the duet between Asteria and Andronico in the third act was so lovely it stopped time.

Daniels is perfectly cast in what might be termed one of Handel's raging-tyrant roles in which the character's mercurial, spoiled instability finds perfect expression in neurotic floods of coloratura (think Julius Caesar; think Xerxes). Yet there is a basic problem with countertenors in large theaters: Even Daniels, perhaps the fullest-voiced and most expressive countertenor singing today, has a quality of reediness when placed against voices produced from the chest register. One of the marvels of the castrati in Handel's day was the power and sweetness of their voices; it is not a quality that can be replicated by a countertenor, although you will not find anyone today better than Daniels to attempt it.

Rader-Shieber didn't drum home the contemporary relevance, but his figures were certainly recognizable, from Tamerlano's thugs to the spoiled Arab princess Irene, affianced to Tamerlano and determined to get him (Claudia Huckle, a member of the company's young-artist program, was out of her depth in this part, convincing optically but not vocally). The image of the denuded palace had obvious reference to Baghdad, but the point was less topicality than the uncomfortable space of transition. In the first act, harshly and distractingly illuminated from the side as if by an interrogation spotlight (Christopher Akerlind was the lighting designer), the back wall of the empty room of David Zinn's set slowly moved up until it had all but eliminated the floor space for the characters. In the third act, that wall was removed altogether, replaced by a line of military officers silhouetted against a sinister red glow: There is no resolution to ambiguity.

Through all this, the conductor William Lacey led a performance that epitomized today's Handel convention, with a pleasant, gung-ho spirit, reasonably appealing to the ear, with the opera's orchestra playing this smaller-scale music gamely. There are always debates about whether baroque opera should be done in a mammoth modern opera house. This performance's attitude of simply tackling it, baroque or no, is certainly one approach, though it created an odd hybrid, a verismo limb grafted onto a Handelian stock.

The resulting foliage did not conceal that one point of the exercise was to display Domingo's voice, which, if dulled, is still downright miraculous for a man of 67. And it was Domingo who held the opera through to his climactic death scene, so Otello-like that the opera, stripped of several of Handel's original numbers, fell like a souffle, with the tyrant's abrupt capitulation, as soon as Bajazet was gone.

Tamerlano (approximately 3 1/2 hours, in Italian with surtitles), at the Kennedy Center Opera house tonight, Sunday, May 12, 20 and 22. Call 202-295-2400 or visit http://www.dc-opera.org.

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