Bajazet makes its Royal Opera House debut after nearly 300 years
It cannot be said that there was a rush to put Vivaldi’s operas before a London audience. Almost 300 years after its premiere in Verona, Bajazet arrived courtesy of the Irish National Opera, a co-production with the Royal Opera in partnership with the Irish Baroque Orchestra, and is Vivaldi’s first opera ever to be seen within the walls of the Royal Opera House.
Terminology is important here, as the opera was not entirely composed by Vivaldi. This is called a pastiche, a common form of operatic entertainment in the 18th century, in which many hands were involved. For Bajazet, Vivaldi blended his own existing tunes with others by Broschi, Giacomelli and Hasse, and wrapped them into a new narrative. Sometimes he changed the words to fit the new story; sometimes he didn’t care.
It may seem like a strange idea to us today, but audiences back then loved them. The challenge is to create a cohesive dramatic entity from the cobbled-together parts, and director Adele Thomas pushed the testosterone level to the max in her performance. Bajazetfocusing on rampant machismo in war-torn Central Asia in the 14th century.
The relationship between Bajazet, already chained when the curtain rises, and his conqueror Tamerlano, portrayed as a rapacious sexual psychopath, becomes one of relentless aggression. The two singers, Bajazet, the muscular baritone of Gianluca Margheri, and Tamerlano, the highly worked countertenor of James Laing, enter the spirit with a macho song, even if it wears out after a while.
None of the actors escapes what Thomas calls “the near-hysterical state of living trauma”. Mezzo Niamh O’Sullivan comes closest with her deeply felt vocals of Asteria’s (Vivaldi’s) quieter tunes. Aoife Miskelly and Eric Jurenas provide decent support from Tamerlano’s side, although he is taken too far in his final aria, which veers off the rails.
Then, long after the rest of the cast has settled in, jealous love interest Irene makes an entrance not to be forgotten. Exploding in a fireball of indignant fury, laced with savage vocal leaps and ferocious sixteenth notes, Claire Booth soared with the kind of performance that Joan Collins might have envied if Dynasty had been set to music. How did she know where she was going in this vast, shapeless air? Some of his chants sounded rushed, but surely that must be par for the course.
Representations of Bajazet until February 12, so it’s Baroque week at the Royal Opera. Forced to choose between the impressive Vivaldi and Handel Theodora in Katie Mitchell’s controversial production upstairs, there’s no question where the hard-earned cash should be spent. Even so, this production never loosens its grip, and bandleader Peter Whelan, an irritatingly busy continuo job apart, keeps his little band well-in-the-loop. Vivaldi and Co is not doing too badly.
As of February 12, roh.org.uk