Antonio Vivaldi - Bajazet
Irish National Opera, 2022
Peter Whelan, Adele Thomas, James Laing, Gianluca Margheri, Niamh O’Sullivan, Eric Jurenas, Claire Booth, Aoife Miskelly
The Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire - 29 January 2022
The fact that Vivaldi's 1735 opera Bajazet has made it through to us intact through the centuries feels like something of a miracle. That's obviously partly through chance but it's also partly through design. It's by chance that this opera has survived where many, including many by Vivaldi, have not, but it's also by the fact that Vivaldi created Bajazet as a kind of greatest hits, a pasticcio where he would create recitatives to string together famous arias by other composers and add a few of its own - so yes it's bound to be good. What is also great by design as far as claiming it to be something miraculous is that it communicates its brilliance through to today, and that is by design of the director, cast and orchestra of this Irish National Opera production.
Reading the synopsis beforehand for a refresher, even knowing how the plot of baroque operas usually play out and even having seen several productions of Handel's Tamerlano, I despaired of getting my head around the characters and the typically complicated struggle for power and love between each of them. Maybe it was just the long journey down to Dún Laoghaire. Surely there must be a simpler way of getting the plot and characterisation across? Well of course there is, and after abandoning taking in more than the events of Act I, I trusted that it would all become clear in the delivery in the performance. Making the complicated simple is no easy matter of course and it's down to how good the director and the cast are, and well, this was just thrillingly put across.
Baroque opera can be dry, with not much in the way of dramatic action. There are passages of recitative and a lot of arias with flowery metaphors that have little lyrical relation to the drama. Even more so in a pasticcio, where the arias have been lifted almost wholesale from other works and dropped into a new, usually generic, plot. That is true to some extent with Bajazet, including one aria where Idaspe sings of a boat in a storm at sea, despite their being no naval scene in the opera, although evidently you can take that as a metaphor for emotional turmoil. Writing his own linking recitative for Bajazet however, Vivaldi clearly manages to tie things together very well into a tense dramatic situation.
That however is still only as tense and dramatic as it is allowed to be. The underlying sentiments, rather than being just generic expressions of love, anger, revenge and despair need to be wholly and convincingly played without operatic or period mannerisms. Here Adele Thomas has clearly worked hard to ensure that the performances are robust and related realistically to the situation, with the added bonus that every singer here manages to bring individual life and personality to the characters. It's rare that you see the drama of a baroque opera enacted as if it really mattered.
Molly O'Cathain's impressive gold box set design is also robust and it needs to be because Bajazet and Tamerlano fairly bounce off the walls in aggression and there is much slamming and bursting open of side doors. No walk-on-walk-off scenes here. The other performers wisely give the two principal figures a wide berth and when they aren't able to get out of the way, they get caught up in some rough and tumble that is more than just boisterous. There is anger and violence here that is commensurate with the nature of the figures involved and the implications of the historical drama. It's a tense situation, life or death, and you can feel it. We know what Tamerlano's fate will be, but we can't be sure in this production that his will be the only death.
That's another element of danger and unpredictability that Adele Thomas has introduced into the already tense drama. Anyone familiar with Tamerlano or many similarly themed baroque operas like this can usually expect the insensitive, misguided, proud and cruel ruler to eventually come to his senses and resolve matters, at least as far as affairs of the heart are concerned. Not so here, which is fitting as this Tamerlano is particularly cruel and irredeemable. So, while Bajazet nobly sacrifices himself to be spared the humiliation of his daughter Asteria as is traditional, the lame Tamerlano also meets a just fate through a means that has been hinted at throughout but which also feels in keeping with the amount of pent up anger that has built up.
Where do you start with a cast like this who all have significant roles to play? Probably with the two roles that have the most impact in terms of drama and singing. Stalking the stage with menace James Laing made this Tamerlano really a figure to be feared, his countertenor only adding a sinister quality. He's the only person you could imagine capable of subduing this Bajazet and even then he must have employed some dirty tricks to do it, as Gianluca Margheri's muscular bass-baritone Bajazet was only matched by his physique, straining at the bonds like a rabid dog. He practically shook the walls with every fiery utterance.
We didn't get to hear Claire Booth's Irene until the close of the first Act, but she more than made up for the late appearance with high-flown coloratura expressing her fury - and like Bajazet you could feel that very real fury of a woman scorned and hurt. Niamh O'Sullivan's Asteria was also an impressive ball of coiled anger, spitting imprecations against her faithless lover Andronico as much as against her captor Tamerlano. The conflicted and inconstant Andronico was brilliantly characterised and sung by countertenor Eric Jurenas, skulking and diving from the formidable forces, no match for any of the forces on the stage around him. Aoife Miskelly's Idaspe also had a vital role to play here dramatically and in the delivery of challenging arias. Vital also is the role of the ensemble of voices, the six creating a stunning array of complementary and contrasting timbres and voices. All close together on the stage too, playing off on another, even when they weren't singing, all adding to the hothouse atmosphere.
I had forgotten how powerful it can be to hear live baroque opera played on period instruments. I can't blame Covid entirely for this, although it certainly delayed this production to the extent that it was almost cancelled entirely and was only allowed to play to a full house this week with the lifting of most restrictions in Ireland, but it's just rare enough to get the opportunity to hear rare works like this close up. In fact my last time might indeed have been at the Pavilion in Dún Laoghaire in 2019 when Peter Whelan led the Irish Baroque Orchestra through Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice. Once again, they provided a thrilling and revelatory experience, Vivaldi's music (and that of others) just pinging around the hall with crystal clear precision and put to good dramatic use.
This is Irish National Opera doing what it does best, taking on a challenging and wide ranging repertoire. Whether working with familiar standards, new contemporary opera or reviving rare baroque repertoire, they are equally good at bringing opera to life. That's a team effort and when that combines in actual live performance that is ultimately what makes something like Bajazet miraculous, magic or whatever you want to call it. Just 'opera' says it all, I suppose. It's about finding a way to make notes on a page written centuries ago come back to life and this Bajazet makes it into the 21st century alive and kicking.