In the main house at Covent Garden, the Royal Opera’s new production of Handel’sTheodora breaks a 272-year silence since its premiere there. While downstairs in the Linbury Theatre, Venetian composer Antonio Vivaldi’s 1735 opera Bajazet gets its first Opera House production.
And if these sound like a couple of fossils, look again. With its steely kitchen and pole-dancing, Katie Mitchell’s cluttered production of Theodora is all about modern abuses of power. And with Bajazet, director Adele Thomas also looks at a powerful man who has bullied his way to the top. But there the resemblance ends.
Thomas directed a thrilling Handel's Berenice in the Linbury in 2019. Could she do it again? You bet. She has a great gift for letting the music, first and foremost, tell the story, with the simplest of aids to enhance character and plot.
Tamerlano (James Laing) gets his jab from Idaspe (Aoife Miskelly)
This Bajazet exists in a time of its own, when flowing gowns and crowns co-exist alongside hypodermic needles and zips. Molly O’Cathain’s set and costume designs favour gold and blue, while Sinéad Wallace’s superb lighting paints the scene. The slimy confines of a prison glow into the gilded walls of an opulent palace. The regal sapphire gown of a visiting princess complements the practical workwear of the household where power games are played out.
The six singers who do all the work in this chamber piece are joined by the Irish Baroque Orchestra under Peter Whelan. For while it is a Royal Opera House co-production, this miraculous resurrection of Vivaldi’s jam-packed opera began life in Dublin. Only four years old, Irish National Opera is fresh and forward-looking, and it’s great news for London when the company breezes into town.
He may be the Four Seasons man to most people, but Vivaldi wrote more than 90 operas, of which 20 or so survive. But even a quick worker had to cut corners – just as the prolific Handel did, recycling his own work. Vivaldi took a further step, dropping other composers’ hits into his score. The result is a delicious mish-mash made sensible by the sharp focus of Whelan and his astonishing players, outstanding among them Mexican-born lutenist Sergio Bucheli, whose theorbo is like an extra character, or a Greek chorus, needling, urging, occasionally harrumphing.
Showstopper: Claire Booth as Irene
And there’s plenty for that ‘chorus’ to comment upon. The Ottoman sultan of the title, Bajazet, is imprisoned in his own domain by his vanquisher, the blood-thirsty Turko-Mongolian land-grabber Tamerlano (known elsewhere as Timur or Tamburlaine). Tamerlano, a foul and fetid glam rocker as portrayed by counter-tenor James Laing, is lined up to marry an ambitious princess, but is more interested in his captive’s daughter Asteria.
The furious princess need not worry (although every woman in the audience is thinking, ‘Get out now!’): Asteria’s true love is Tamerlano’s sensible right-hand man, sung with gravity by counter-tenor Eric Jurenas.
As headstrong princess Irene, soprano Claire Booth turns in the showstopper of the evening, an aria that Vivaldi imported, of dazzling virtuosity and terrifying determination. Asteria is warmly sung by Niamh O’Sullivan. Bass-baritone Gianluca Margheri is the long-suffering Bajazet, while as all-seeing servant Idaspe, soprano Aoife Miskelly makes her move when the moment comes.
Great singing, great playing, great movement, and great restraint on the part of Thomas all let the music fly.
With only a handful of performances, tickets sold fast, but audience numbers ebb and flow daily, and it is well worth trying for returns.
Bajazet is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Remaining performances are on 9, 10 and 12 Feb
|What||Bajazet, Royal Opera House review|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
04 Feb 22 – 12 Feb 22, six performances, with one interval
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|