Vivente scores with updated `Tamburlaine'

De Ryke does devilish good job as evil-doer

Opera Review

April 11, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Stage villains don't come more vile than Tamburlaine, the Tartar emperor whose cruelty and assorted neuroses drive the 1724 Handel opera that bears his name.

This creep gets a kick out of humiliating enemies and friends alike. When he decides to claim Asteria, daughter of the conquered Persian king Bajazet, as his queen, Tamburlaine demands that the unfortunate woman step over Bajazet's prostrate body on the way to the throne. And when Tamburlaine discovers that Asteria is in love with his buddy Andronicus, he calmly orders that she be raped in front of her boyfriend.

The emperor's sole redeeming feature is that he gets brilliant music to sing while behaving badly.

Opera Vivente's provocative staging of Tamburlaine at Emmanuel Episcopal Church offers a rare and welcome opportunity to experience one of Handel's most serious, darkly shaded works.

Into the formulaic baroque opera progression of aria-recitative-aria (and the standard three-part form of those arias), Handel inserts striking novelties. Bajazet's death scene is a particularly powerful example, composed in what amounts to a free-form style, steadily building theatrical impact as it unfolds. It still sounds as startling and advanced as it must have in 1724.

The plot, too, is far from routine. You find yourself rooting for Tamburlaine's comeuppance, but the only corpse you get at the end is poor Bajazet's (from suicide). We're supposed to take comfort in the fact that Tamburlaine decides that enough blood has been shed, that Asteria and Andronicus can marry, and that a new day is dawning. Yeah, right.

Opera Vivente's production gets off to an awkward start with some stilted, pantomimed business during the overture, but then clicks nicely.

By updating the action to contemporary times (complete with reminders of war, torture and cultural/religious clashes), director John Bowen effectively drives home the starkness of the work's underlying message that all doesn't really end happily. Here, people caught up in horrid circumstances can only try to cope and compromise if they want to stay alive.

Bowen spares his audience none of the opera's bleakness and sexual cruelty; there are several graphic moments. The starkness makes it impossible to mistake Tamburlaine for a mere vocal display vehicle.

Saturday night's performance got an immediate boost from the presence of a fine period instrument orchestra. Conducting from the harpsichord, Joseph Gascho gave the score momentum without haste and, a few accidents aside, kept everyone in synch. The music came to life easily and colorfully.

The roles of Tamburlaine and Andronicus were taken by countertenors (Handel wrote each for a castrato). As the tyrant, Ryan de Ryke chewed up Thom Bumblauskas' evocative, war-scarred scenery and sang with finesse, firmness and expressive sting. As Andronicus, John Carden phrased dynamically, but with a fast vibrato and limited tonal variety.

Kenneth Gayle's admirable diction and eloquent phrasing as Bajazet compensated for a thin lower register. As Asteria, Ah Hong offered warm, supple soprano and a sympathetic portrayal. As Irene, Tamburlaine's eventual queen, Michelle Rice sang in rich, compelling tones. Christopher Austin, as Leone, filled out the cast solidly.

Tamburlaine

What: Opera Vivente

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.

Tickets: $20 to $36

Call: 410-547-7997

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