Sunday, 1 July 2012

Tamerlano - A Summary

The following is a draft entry for The Literary Encyclopedia Online (the entry was published online in July, 2012)

Tamerlano is one of Handel’s finest operas, unusual in its generally tragic tone. Composed at the height of Handel’s Royal Academy opera success, it was the second of three masterpieces performed within the space of two seasons from 1724-5, along with Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda (see entries on each in this encyclopedia). Though it is now acknowledged by Handel scholars to be as great a masterpiece as the two other works, it was not always so. The great Handel expert, John Merrill Knapp, in 1970, noted that:  “The neglect of Tamerlano is strange. It has not only just as much fine music as the other two operas but also one of the first important tenor roles in operatic history” (Knapp, 406).

The subject of the opera has an iconic status in music, literature and art – the subjugation of eastern Europe and western Asia in the fourteenth century by Timur or Tamerlane, Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, and the opera’s eponymous Tamerlano. But the real hero of Handel’s opera is not the conqueror, but his conquered Ottoman ruler Bajazete, the historical Bayezid, and Marlowe’s Bajazeth. In Marlowe’s two-part play, though Tamburlaine is clearly the (ambiguous) hero, Bajazeth has some very fine lines, cursing his captor to all kinds of hell and dashing his brains out on the bars of his own prison cage to avoid further humiliation.

      Now, Bajazeth, abridge thy baneful days
And beat thy brains out of thy conquered head,
Since other means are all forbidden me
That may be ministers of my decay.
O highest lamp of ever-living Jove,
Accursèd day, infected with my griefs,
Hide now thy stainèd face in endless night
And shut the windows of the lightsome heavens!
Let ugly Darkness with her rusty coach
Engirt with tempests wrapped in pitchy clouds
Smother the earth with never-fading mists,
And let her horses from their nostrils breathe
Rebellious winds and dreadful thunderclaps,
That in this terror Tamburlaine may live,
And my pined soul, resolved in liquid air,
May still excruciate his tormented thoughts!
Then let the stony dart of senseless cold
Pierce through the centre of my withered heart
And make a passage for my loathèd life. (Marlowe, Part I, V, i, 286-304)

Though he has a less grotesque ending – poisoning, not braining himself – Handel’s Bajazete is one of the greatest tragic heroes of eighteenth-century opera.

The sources for Handel’s version of the story, pieced together by his librettist, Nicola Haym, were not English, though, but Italian (based on a French original). The main sources were Agostino Piovene’s Tamerlano, written for a Venetian production of 1710, and a revision of that libretto for a production in Reggio in 1719 (see Knapp, and Dean and Knapp for comprehensive accounts).

The opera opens in the palace of Tamerlano, in view of the cell where Bajazete is held prisoner. Andronico, Tamerlano’s ally, encourages the captive to move freely about the palace. Bajazete scorns Tamerlano’s condescension, and tries to take his own life, but Andronico reminds him of his daughter Asteria’s love, which moves him to restraint. Tamerlano promises to restore the Byzantine kingdom to Andronico, who says he prefers to stay to learn the art of war, though his real motive is the requited love of Asteria. Unfortunately for him, Tamerlano declares his love for Asteria; he says that Andronico must marry Irene, Princess of Trebizond, Tamerlano’s betrothed, and help him get Bajazete’s consent to marry Asteria. Tamerlano tells Asteria of his love, Andronico’s proposed marriage to Irene, and his negotiations with her father. She assumes the “unfaithful Greek” has agreed to the arrangement, and curses, but still loves, him. Bajazete will never consent to the marriage of his daughter to Tamerlano. When Irene arrives she is outraged that Andronico presents himself as her future husband, but they agree that she will disguise herself, and they will bide their time. Tamerlano is certain Asteria agrees to be his and thanks Andronico. Planning on murdering the tyrant, Asteria maintains her charade of acquiescience, though revealing her rejection of Tamerlano to Irene. Bajazete interrupts the ceremony, but Tamerlano subjects him, standing on his neck to lead his daughter to the throne. Irene intervenes, still in disguise, claiming the throne. In the face of her father’s outrage, Asteria gives up her plot and announces that her intention was to kill Tamerlano. Tamerlano swears horrible revenge, but Bajazete, Andronico and Irene all commend Asteria’s constancy and honour. Bajazete and Asteria agree on a poisonous suicide pact, if necessary. Finally, Andronico declares his love in public and stands up to Tamerlano, who orders Bajazete to be decapitated and Asteria to be married off to “the meanest Slave” (Haym, 73). Asteria tries to poison Tamerlano but is foiled by Irene. Tamerlano makes Asteria offer her poisoned drink to either her father or lover, but she tries to drink it herself. Andronico prevents her. Tamerlano will force Bajazete to witness his daughter humiliated and debased in the slaves’ harem, and promises he will marry Irene. But Bajazete has already poisoned himself, and delivers a dying speech, cursing his enemy, and saying he is incapable of killing his daughter who asks him to “[p]lunge in my willing Breast the shining Steel” (Haym, 94). Tamerlano is moved to pity, stopping Andronico from taking his own life. He will free Asteria for Andronico, himself marrying Irene in a celebration that will bring peace at last. Asteria is absent from the “celebrations”.

Knapp was right to stress the importance of the tenor. In our age of the “three tenors”, and with a heritage of great operatic tenor parts, it is difficult to imagine the rarity of the tenor voice on the London opera stage of the early eighteenth century. Prior to Tamerlano, Handel had composed thirteen Italian operas, where all the main male roles were played by castrati – either soprano or alto.  It’s not surprising that the lead casting of the tenor Francesco Borosini in the role of Bajazete, should have provoked some humour at the expense of the castrati. Mist’s Weekly Journal, reported: “We hear that there is a new Opera now in Practice at the Theatre in the Hay-Market, called Tamerlane, the Musick composed by Mynheer Hendel, and that Signior Borseni, newly arrived from Italy, is to sing the Part of the Tyrant Bajazet. N.B. It is commonly reported this Gentleman was never cut out for a Singer” (Deutsch, 173-4). The only Handel tenor role of any significance before Bajazete was Giuliano, “a hair-brained military” character in Rodrigo, the first of his Italian operas (1707) (Dean and Knapp, 107). The general status of the tenor is best shown by the cast for Handel’s first London opera, Rinaldo (1711), where a glittering array of Italian roles was supplemented by one Englishman, the tenor Mr Lawrence, who played the completely insignificant role of herald.

But Borosini was not only the best tenor in Europe. He had a considerable influence on his own most important operatic role. He had already played Bajazet, in the revision of Piovene’s libretto in 1719, and had influenced the development of his part in that opera to the extent that the title changed from Tamerlano to Il Bajazet. And it seems he brought this revised libretto with him to London, which led to Haym and Handel revising their own version of Tamerlano, particularly to include Bajazete’s death scene. Perhaps Handel, too, should have renamed his opera Bajazete. (See Larue, 17-79, for a fascinating account of Borosini’s influence on Handel’s first production.)

Several characters have great arias in Tamerlano. Particularly impressive are: Andronico’s beautiful “Cerco in vano”; Irene’s sublime “Per che mi nasca”; and Asteria’s moving and tragic “Cor di padre’. But Bajazete has much of the best music and all of the best drama. The aria “Forte e lieto’ represents the fateful combination of a desire for death and the love of his daughter; “Ciel e terra” is a magnificent aria of disdainful defiance of Tamerlano; and “A suoi piedi” expresses profound despair at the possible (mistaken) betrayal of his daughter (Dean and Knapp even speculate that this “astonishing piece” may have been borrowed by Bach for his Matthew Passion (Dean and Knapp, 540-41). But it is the death sequence that most stands out. John Merrill Knapp has said that this passage “with its succession of secco and accompanied recitative, arioso, and aria is probably one of the most powerfully dramatic scenes in all Baroque opera” (Knapp, 406). Bajazete has defied his enemy by poisoning himself, and enters with calm and dignified resolution: “My Heart alone / Can tell the Reason yet, why all this Calm / Sits sporting smiling in my altered Looks” (Haym, 94). Tamerlano’s response, though, takes him from this assured resignation to cursing bitterness. Then interruptions by his daughter Asteria provoke complete shifts in mood to the tragic pathos of the situation, before he finally recovers his indignation, as his music literally breathes – in breaking breaths – its last.

Works cited
Dean, Winton and John Merrill Knapp. Handel’s Operas 1704-1726. Oxford: Clarendon
            Press. 1995.
Deutsch, Otto Erich. Handel: A Documentary Biography. London: Adam and Charles
            Black. 1955.
Haym, Nicola. Tamerlano: Drama. London: King’s Theatre. 1724.
Knapp, J. Merrill. “Handel’s Tamerlano: The Creation of an Opera” in Musical Quarterly
            56. 1970, pp.405-30.
Larue, C. Steven. Handel and His Singers: The Creation of the Royal Academy Operas,
            1720 – 1728. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1995.
Marlowe, Christopher. Tamburlaine the Great, ed. J. S. Cunningham and Eithne Henson.
            Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press. 1998.

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