Claire Booth (Irene), Niamh O’Sullivan (Asteria) and James Laing (Tamerlano) in Bajazet. Image Kip Carroll.
Tradition married to innovation. The hallmarks of Irish National Opera. Of Vivaldi, not so much. Ever the traditionalist, innovation and pushing boundaries were never really Vivaldi's thing. His 1735 opera, Bajazet, rehashing a tried and tested tale presented as an opera several years earlier by Handel. Vivaldi's pasticcio, pick and mix style, remixing pre-existing works with original music, including a libretto by several authors, was as commonplace then as it is now. Which might go some way to explaining why Vivaldi is never considered one of opera's greats, despite an apparently large number of operas. Begging the question why Irish National Opera chose to resurrect his Bajazet now? The answer proves glaringly simple: to innovate and push at operatic boundaries while honouring and respecting tradition. Allowing clever subversions to reveal hidden truths that lend Bajazet a contemporary edge. And, of course, there's the sublime coloratura. And a delicious, innovative twist you won't see coming till the very last moment.
If the overture sees the Irish Baroque Orchestra, under conductor Peter Whelan, sacrificing symphonic sweep for a purity of sound, the result is a heightened degree of intimacy. Like a pared back, acoustic version of a rock classic, the Irish Baroque Orchestra use original instruments to (re)create and enrich the listening experience. Sensitively supporting the singing, structured around a heavy rotation of recitatives and arias. Resulting in quite a lot of solos.
Gianluca Margheri (Bajazet), Aoife Miskelly (Idaspe ), Claire Booth (Irene) and Eric Jurenas (Andronico) in Bajazet.
Image Kip Carroll.
With a subversive ace cleverly concealed up her sleeve, director Adele Thomas mines Bajazet's contrived libretto for all its melodramatic worth. Delivering the baroque equivalent of a season finale for Succession. Even if Molly O'Caithin's costumes hark back to the 80s, channelling a dystopian Mad Max, with just a hint of The Hunger Games. There's even an over the top, 80s villain. The mongol overlord Tamerlano, who kills men, women and children indiscriminately, even as he shows a peculiar respect for the institution of marriage. Though not for any women he might want to have as his wife.
Having defeated the Turkish lord Bajazet, with the help of Bajazet's former rival, Andronico, Tamerlano decides he's really a lover who likes to fight, being smitten by Bajazet's daughter, the beautiful Asteria. Only Asteria's drawn to Andronico, he being equally smitten with her. Suggesting a man who looks like he could barely order a sandwich never mind an army, the fob Andronico makes for a big ask initially. But hang in there, it's all part of Thomas's plan. As Tamerlano decides to make Asteria his wife, the small matter of the woman he is betrothed to, Irene, sees the implausible meet the improbable. In what follows death, betrayal and disguises, and every opera tropes you could hope for, are writ large as women in a man's world are played as pawns, either for power or for pleasure.
James Laing (Tamerlano), Niamh O’Sullivan (Asteria) and Eric Júrenas (Andronico) in Bajazet. Image Kip Carroll.
If Bajazet is an opera better seen than heard, visually it leaves a little to be desired. O'Caithin's gilded set might wish to evoke the opulence of Bajazet's palace, but its spartan design suggests the inside of a copper cistern. The hole in the roof with its oversized hook making for an odd contrast with the grim realism Thomas often attempts to evoke. Something Sinead Wallace's lighting struggles to realise. If there was an intention to achieve a Caravaggio styled chiaroscuro, a blend of lustre and shadow, Wallace's lighting misses as often as it hits, frequently attracting unwelcome attention to itself. Given light and design's sparse economy, huge emphasis is then placed on performances.
Also known as Il Tamerlano, this feels the more appropriate title, even if it does reference Handel's earlier opera. It's not just that Bajazet struts and frets his two hours plus upon the stage signifying very little, like a cameo in his own opera, it's that Tamerlano rocks as the bad boy with no redeeming qualities, played with worrying conviction by countertenor James Laing. Not that Thomas always serves her cast well compositionally. With recitatives setting up arias, what emerges are a series of often visually uninteresting, slow moving tableaux, like tortured stations of the cross, interrupted by an inordinate amount of running through doors. Especially Asteria, for whom it almost seems a compulsion. Yet some scenes, like Irene's seduction of Tamerlano, are wonderfully realised, asking questions of others. With lots of backs to the audience, lifeless or stiff bodies, and obscured sight lines, the spectacle doesn't always ignite. Even when Eric Jurenas as Andronico performs a playful solo with the stage curtain, it looks like a gimmick in search of a visual idea.
James Laing (Tamerlano) and Niamh O’Sullivan (Asteria) in Bajazet. Image Kip Carroll.
Then there's the singing, which delivers coloratura gold at either end of the register. If not every aria is quite the showstopper, every singer is. Each having at least one exemplary moment that takes your breath away. In a clever play on tone and timbre, the casting of countertenors Laing and Jurenas as male warriors subverts expectations of violent masculinity, repositioning power and aggression in fascinating ways. Made all the more interesting by Gianluca Margheri's commanding bass baritone, his imprisoned Bajazet fretting with powerless authority. But it's the women who exude real authority. Soprano Aoife Miskelly's Idaspe, a sort of chorus come fly on the wall, proves remarkable. Mezzo-soprano, Niamh O'Sullivan, whose star is very much in the ascendancy, sees her star rising further in a sterling performance. It's not just the fire behind O'Sullivan's eyes and voice, its that O'Sullivan wastes nothing visually, performatively or vocally, crafting a detailed, rigorous and complete performance. As does a sublime Claire Booth, who lights up the stage every time she enters, and whose singing is utterly spellbinding.
If there are visual issues, Thomas excels in managing the tensions arising from her subversions. So deceptively handled you could be forgiven for thinking she ignored the tensions in the original libretto. Instead, Thomas deconstructs them, showing their rotten insides. Claims of Bajazet speaking to the Covid experience prove a stretch disingenuous. For Thomas's ace is her effecting of a gender coup, beautifully orchestrated and realised, resolving many tensions in Vivaldi's opera, including many he may not have known were there. Revealing that Bajazet was never an opera about love, it was always about power. And under Thomas's guidance it becomes about a transfer of power. Even as absolute power corrupts. And there are plenty of reasons to believe that it will.
James Laing (Tamerlano) and Claire Booth (Irene) in Bajazet. Image Kip Carroll.
For those who like the emotional deep dive of a Puccini, with the musical sweep to match, Vivaldi's jaunty baroque can feel out of place when married to tragedy. Suggesting emotional restriction rather than depth, or a favouring of musical convention over the experience to which it speaks. But listen to the singing and to the Irish Baroque Orchestra, frequently creating moments that are timeless. If visually messy in parts, Thomas's strong artistic vision gives Bajazet a cohesion that forgives it a little untidiness. Allowing that the work was created under Covid restrictions, it's a marvel what has been achieved. If criteria for reviving forgotten works has to include contemporary relevance, Thomas achieves that rare feat of turning tradition on its head and making Bajazet an opera for today whilst honouring that tradition. And the singing is simply magnificent.
Bajazet by Antonio Vivaldi, presented by Irish National Opera in a co-production with Royal Opera House, London, in partnership with Irish Baroque Orchestra, is currently on tour.
January 20, St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork (concert performance).
January 22, Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick.
January 25, Town Hall Theatre, Galway
January 27, Aula Maxima Maynooth University (concert performance).
January 29 - 30, Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire.
February 4 - 12, Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House, London.
For more information visit Irish National Opera.