There’s no doubt that audiences are challenged by double-crosses and deceit of the story told in Vivaldi’s opera Bajazet. But this Pinchgut Opera presentation makes it worthwhile.
All elements come together to deliver an experience that is thrillingly beautiful, psychologically grim, and—in the end—emotionally satisfying. This suggests a productive working relationship between Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess and Artistic Director Erin Helyard, who also conducts the Orchestra of the Antipodes for this production.
The story begins just after the Tartars have defeated the Turks. The first scene shows the Tartar emperor Tameralan (Christopher Lowrey) torturing Bajazet, ruler of the Turks (Hadleigh Adams). And in an act that mixes desire and an urge to inflict maximum pain, Tamerlano decides he wants to marry Bajazet’s daughter Asteria (Emily Edmonds). But she loves Greek prince Andronico (Russell Harcourt), who just happens to be one of Tamerlano’s closest allies.
The defeat of an empire and the subsequent political manouevrings are thus encapsulated in personal relationships. The visual style of the production, designed by Alicia Clements, is low-key but elegantly domestic. The action takes place in a living room, the violence of war reflected in its disarray: chairs overturned, a bookcase with its books swept off the shelves, a crystal chandelier on the floor, and floor-length blood-red drapes hanging askew. Costumes present a mix of period references, all the better to open out the interpretative potential of this centuries-old story.
And that is evident from the first scene, when Bajazet is shoved on stage, bound and hooded, a method of terror that is both primitive and all-too-current, as is the violent taking of “wives” during conflict.
Countertenor Lowrey plays Tamerlano with relish as an out-of-control, self-pitying psychopath. He has no boundaries: he gropes a maid at the same time as singing about his “love” of Asteria.
Lowrey’s voice is delightfully supple but didn’t seem as strong as other performers’, which was strangely at odds with his aggressive character.
Hadleigh Adams’ baritone is full of rich weight, while Russell Harcourt is clear and precise as Andronicus, pulled between the woman he loves and his ally Tamerlano. More than the other male characters, he frequently converses with the women, becoming a sympathetic character; for me, his voice represented psychological and emotional stability.
The story really belongs to the spirited and defiant women. Mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds’ Asteria is heartbreaking in her efforts to kill Tamerlano and save her father. Sara Macliver as Idaspe, friend to prince Andronico, is also exceptional, her voice glorious.
Then there is Irene, princess of Trebisond, whom Tamerlano rejects in order to marry Asteria. Helen Sherman’s assured vocal skills and stage presence are especially engaging as she discovers that she has been replaced. She even keeps singing while consummating her relationship with Tamerlano!
And the Orchestra of the Antipodes, with their period instruments, provide a luscious texture to the score and give integrity to the characters’ emotional shifts.
A happy ending is impossible following the hatred, deceit, betrayal and cruelty that are so prominent on-stage. Instead, the unsettling outcome is true to the narrative, the performers, and the score.
And that’s what makes it is so immensely satisfying.