In 1724-25, Handel produced a trio of operatic masterpieces: GIULIO CESARE IN EGITTO, TAMERLANO and RODELINDA, one of the highest peaks in his long theater career. TAMERLANO differs from the other two in that the obligatory "happy ending" is darkened by the suicide of a major character (the Turkish Emperor Bajazet); indeed, the whole piece, which deals with the psychological war between Bajazet and the Tartar Emperor Tamerlane, has a strikingly claustrophobic atmosphere, exemplified by the fact that, unusually for a Handel opera, every scene takes place indoors. Two other features are the frequent use of string-accompanied recitative at moments of high emotional intensity, all superb, and the fact that a major role (Bajazet) was composed for a tenor. Bajazet's death scene, passing flexibly from "dry" to accompanied recitative to arioso, is one of the most emotionally wrenching stretches in all of Handel's output. But the whole score sustains the highest level of inspiration, even more so than its companion operas. It's a beautiful and moving work.
The recording history of TAMERLANO is paradoxical: every one of the 4 previous recordings (beginning with John Moriarty's landmark 1970 version, and proceeding to "period" versions by Malgoire, Gardiner and Pinnck) has its merits and is worth hearing, but all of them fiddle with the musical text, generally by restoring material (some of it admittedly beautiful) that Handel cut before the 1724 premiere, sometimes by reverting to a discarded scheme for the end of Act II/start of Act III, and always making cuts in the lengthy "dry" recitatives (often following Handel's later abridgements). This new recording at last gives us Handel's 1724 text plain and simple, and it proves (no surprise) that Handel knew exactly what he was doing, particularly when he ruthlessly expunged the extraneous numbers towards the end of the opera. The piece feels structurally balanced and dramatically convincing to a far greater degree than ever before in my experience.
Fortunately, this is a terrific performance, a studio recording following a series of stage performances: the best of both worlds. There are no weak links in the cast, and the key role of Bajazet receives a particulary vivid reading from baritone Tassis Christoyannis - yes, baritone, a valid solution to the low-lying tessitura of the role. (In any case, Christoyannis's top register has a definite tenorish tinge, so there is no confusing his voice with that of the fine Leone, Petros Magoulas.) Mezzo Mary-Ellen Nesi is another standout as Andronicus, the Greek prince in love with Bajazet's daughter Asteria. One many prefer this or that singer in one of the roles on another recording, but the level of achievement here is high, and the sense of teamwork very satisfying.
For this, conductor George Petrou deserves great credit, as he does for his leadership of the fine Orchestra of Patras. It's an exciting performance, not the only way to do the piece but an extremely gripping and powerful one. Yes, there is the occasional overly fast tempo, but I found only one - Asteria's last aria in Act II - unfathomably so. David Vickers's notes are informative and clear about the textual issues, and there is a full Italian/English text. This is now top choice for TAMERLANO.