Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Idle Thoughts

May 01, 2008

Is that a doughnut? Domingo in Tamerlano
Photo : Karin Cooper/WNO 2008

Great opera does not live by great vocal performances alone. If there is anyone who needs yet more evidence of this fact, check out Washington National Opera’s new production of Handel’s Tamerlano, which opened last night at the Kennedy Center. It’s got a great cast with David Daniels in the title role, Placido Domingo as the humiliated Bajazet, Sarah Coburn as his daughter Asteria and the very underrated Patricia Bardon as Andronico. Everyone is more than adequate – they’re actually excellent. Even Domingo, who is clearly not cut out for the Handelian brand of pyrotechnics, is stunning in that he produces the level of performance that he does in a new role for him at this stage of his career. He’s taken up this role recently in Madrid as well, and his stamina is awe-inspiring. I continue to be taken with how strong Bardon is and can only hope she continues to be cast in more prominent ways on this side of the Atlantic. The rather adorable Andrew Foster-Williams made the most of his small role of Leone, leaving only the periodically pitchy Irene, voiced here by Claudia Huckle, to raise any eyebrows during the performance.

So what’s my problem? Well, everything else. William Lacey conducts a frustratingly slow and plodding version of the score that swells to three-and-a-half hours even with significant cuts. The musical lifelessness is unfortunately matched by a new and surprisingly uninteresting production directed by Chas Rader-Shieber with design by David Zinn and lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. This is the same team responsible for New York City Opera’s popular Flavio production and their recent disastrous La donna del Lago. The production is thankfully modern dress, but little other drama has survived. The large empty gray room that serves as more or less a single set for the whole opera occasionally benefits from a chair or the moving of the back wall of the set, but that’s about it. The color scheme is black and white except for occasional red in the lighting and the costumes of Bajazet and his daughter Asteria. Otherwise everyone stands around looking for something to do – especially the rather large corps of black-clad storm troopers who appear to have oddly little policing to do in their imaginary totalitarian state. The whole thing might as well be set in a doughnut shop for all the listless and bored officers standing around. Apparently handling weapons was not a crucial part of their training either in that such items are wrested from them with virtually no effort and all the ho-hum brandishing of them gives the production a Hogan’s Heroes feel. In fact Rader-Shieber seems to have a knack for the ridiculously ineffective gesture. Tamerlano induces fear in those around him by such means as knocking over small piles of books or removing his tie as if to bind someone up before subsequently wussing out of it. As any Regietheater practitioner can tell you, the tie isn’t going to cut it in the tension production world where a little bondage, blindfolding and bloodying are standard practice.

So maybe it should be no surprise that the audience seemed fairly underwhelmed on this opening night with so much going for it on paper. Even with a very notable cast, Handel’s opera can definitely do better overall than this.

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Sarah Coburn is not cast in Doctor Atomic at the Met next season.
How right you are. I left the fact-checking dept. back in LA. I stand corrected.
Did you catch Semele in, I think, 2000, at San Francisco Opera? The performances were split between Mackerras and Lacey. I heard one of each. Lacey, competent; Mackerras, genius.
No, I didn't see the Semele but I've had a number of exposures to Lacey in Santa Fe and other environs and while I always try to keep an open mind...

As for Mackerras, I couldn't agree more. I traveled to London last summer specifically to see him conduct Katya Kabanova given the large discrepancies in our ages and the presumed decreasing number of opportunities to see him conduct. It was worth the trip. He's a legend for a reason.
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