Royal Opera House Review 2022: Bajazet
Adele Thomas Delivers a Gnarly & Historic Vivaldi Production at ROHBy Benjamin Poore
(Photo credit: Royal Opera House, 2022)
Two baroque jewels are running concurrently at the Royal Opera House: Katie Mitchell’s molten “Theodora” on the mainstage, and downstairs in the more intimate confines of the Linbury, Antonio Vivaldi’s pasticcio “Bajazet,” a co-production with Irish National Opera.
And what a study in contrasts they make: upstairs, something rueful and naturalistic, whose props are calculated with exquisite detail. Downstairs, though, there is just as much physicality as Mitchell’s slow-motion sequences, but of an altogether different hue, as well as scant props, a more knockabout and colorful score, and simple costumes. To cap it all, though, a breathtakingly robust realization of both music and drama.
They are both powerful essays in skillful direction, though marshaling very different kinds of resources. “Bajazet” shows how much can be done when opera is stripped back to bodies and voices making the most concentrated and calculated of gestures.
This is the first-ever performance of a Vivaldi opera at Covent Garden. Such works are normally reserved for more specialist festivals and admired by fanatical completists, and his operas have made few inroads in the UK in a scene where Italian opera is dominated by Händel. As a pasticcio it belongs to an era that didn’t prize originality for its own sake, Vivaldi composing new recitatives to undergird the story, but recycling arias by himself and others to provide some really quite spectacular musical entertainment. Preconceptions about it being boilerplate should rightly be shed given how engaging this offering was from start to finish.
This is down mainly to Adele Thomas, who directs “Bajazet” with remarkable force and concision. The set is a gold box, a little begrimed, with a central hook and rope that keeps the title character – vanquished leader of Turks, locked up by Tamerlano – at bay. Costumes – by Molly O’Cathain – are regal blue (for servant Idapse and potential suitor Irene) or ragged and grungy (Bajazet and daughter Asteria).
Sinéad Wallace‘s lighting balances residual sumptuousness with sparer and bleaker moods. The plot is simple but, thanks to a succession of spectacular arias, the emotions huge. The vanquished want death or vengeance; a sadistic king oversees brutal palace intrigues; love rivals are caught in misunderstandings and machinations. Idaspe serves as narrator, introducing the story with voiceover and acting decisively in the very final ensemble – not entirely unpredictably – in a satisfying and considered directorial intervention.
The confines of the box mean that this is a world where brutality and intimacy are indivisible. Everything – singing included – comes from the body, in a performance of remarkably physicality and intensity from the entire cast. Bodies are thrown about, restrained, pressed against walls; walls and doors are banged in fury and desperation; people crackle, grunt, and snarl. Characters are hardly still. With some directors this would boil over into fussiness, but here, it just adds to the claustrophobia.
Each character’s movement is as distinctive as a signature: Asteria prowls about, shoulders askew and head first, as if hunting; Tamerlano, fitted with a leg brace and boosted with painkillers in moments of frail repose, hurls himself about the stage and grabs at crotches, faces, and arms – a man whose potency is constantly under threat, and all the more dangerous for it.
Gianluca Margheri as Bajazet is built like something from a Marvel movie, and his incredible muscularity and crouched posture means he roams about like a wounded animal, whose only release comes from violence or death. It’s an opera full of tight grips, seized limbs, reflecting equally intractable situations and mindsets; characters and feelings are pinged across and out of this container.
Vocally everything erupts with similar heft from the box. The singing is like a high-pressure hose. James Laing’s Tamerlano was repulsive and sexy in equal measure, dancing and giggling his way through this very ignoble role; his vibe is clearly modeled on the worst boyfriend of your twenties. Vocally he is lean and wiry; even in his moments of more lyrical repose there is an untutored toughness to his timbre that captures Tamerlano’s ruggedness.
Eric Jurenas’ Andronico cuts quite the contrast, more plush and velvety, as well as considerably softer in sensibility. A bit of business with the closing and opening curtain was a comic delight in his hands. Margheri’s voice big, a little too big perhaps for music on this scale and in this theater, but if anything it added to the caged-beast quality of his accompanied recitatives.
Aofie Miskelly has a slighter role as Idaspe, but was all shining satin in “Nasce rosa lusinghiera”. Niamh O’Sullivan as Asteria was in fierce voice, like something out of Greek tragedy. As a mezzo she shares the darkness of her father’s bass-baritone, and smoldered her way through the music.
Claire Booth (perhaps inevitably) stole the show as the regnal Irene, all devastating profiles and imperious glances, with her remarkable Act one closer “Qual guerriero”, whose length and stratospheric range remind how close this kind vocal virtuosity is to contact sports. So too did she excel in a honeyed “Vedrò con mio diletto” – no easy thing to pull off when the owner of that particular bon-bon Jakub Józef Orliński is in the audience.
How three hours flew by under the hands and harpsichord of conductor Peter Whelan, leading a spry Irish Baroque Orchestra. It’s a truism to point out that the pit matters so much for the tension and energy of any production, but seldom do we get to see (and hear) such an intense interlocking of dramatic and musical energies between stage and orchestra.
Whelan represents the very best of contemporary trends in bringing this music to life: flex and zest with tempi, lithe and vigorous passagework from taut strings, and an incredible alertness to colors and moods summoned by the cut-and-thrust harmonic footwork of this music. There was restraint as well as fireworks (the latter represented by some of the finest – and most dauntless – natural horn playing this correspondent has heard in some time.) The snug, firm playing fed off – and back into – the meaty physicality of the entire staging. A bracing evening, and reminder of how much more less really can be.