For Bay Area music fans who can’t get enough Baroque opera (and really, the pickings are slim), San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s historical performance program is a blessing. On March 9–10, they offered two concert performances of the Handel rarity Tamerlano. What fun: the score is pure Handelian excitement, and the plot is full of suspenseful twists. SFCM students displayed a dazzling variety of vocal riches, but inconsistent stage presence and acting. A stronger directorial hand would have been a boon, even for this concert staging.
If you don’t recall which of Handel’s 42 operas (or which of the hundreds of opera serie with similar plots) Tamerlano is, here’s a refresher: Tamerlano, Emperor of the Tartars, has defeated and captured Bajazet, Emperor of the Turks, and his daughter Asteria. Tamerlano has fallen in love with Asteria and decided to marry her and pardon Bajazet. There are just two problems: Asteria is in love with Tamerlano’s ally Andronico, and Tamerlano is already engaged to the Princess of Trezibond, Irene. The usual operatic tangle of love, assassination plots, rage arias, and suicide ensues — with a happy ending snatched from the jaws of tragedy thanks to Tamerlano’s unlikely last-minute change of heart. As presented at SFCM, the story is well-paced and almost holds together. There are a few plot holes, but that’s to be expected in opera seria, particularly when pieced together from multiple versions (1724 and 1731).
Two of Saturday night’s singers already had the full package. Tenor Ricky Garcia commanded the stage as Bajazet. (Unusually for an opera seria, the tenor is the star of Tamerlano and gets all the best showpieces.) He was fiery and proud, singing with warmth and richness but also enough lightness to effortlessly navigate his role’s difficult coloratura. In “Ciel e terra” and “Empio, per farti guerra,” he delivered impossibly long melismas without pausing for breath. His arias ranged from furious to heartbreaking, and his defiant suicide/farewell scene was deeply moving. As his daughter Asteria, Vivian Yau was the picture of a tragic princess, resplendent in her white empire-waist gown. Her clear, silvery tone, by turns sweet and cutting, was complemented by a strong stage presence, expressive dynamic choices, and clear emotional arcs in each aria. She mostly sang laments, but in “Non è più tempo” she showed that she could also deploy soprano sass when offended.
Mezzo-soprano Isabella Uhl sang Andronico with thrilling tone but little polish. I could rave about her sound endlessly: velvety with just a tinge of air, with low notes that cut straight to the heart. Sung in that voice, “Bell’Asteria” was sheer bliss. As the opera wore on, she pushed her voice off pitch and struggled through the coloratura sections of her arias. On stage, she shifted her weight and hands constantly, weakening her character. As the tyrannous Tamerlano, mezzo-soprano Kaitlin Bertschi was a tireless and precise coloratura machine with deliciously earthy low notes. Her delivery was inconsistent, especially in her middle range: sometimes powerful and sometimes thin. She played the scheming villain from the start — an unfortunate directorial choice. Her character would have been more believable and sympathetic if she had believed her own actions to be right and justifiable.
Christina Yun sang the mezzo-soprano roll of Irene with a large, creamy sound on sustained notes but rough edges in transition. Her regal presence and garb couldn’t hide her awkwardness on stage and muddled affect. As her servant Leone, baritone Wilford Kelly had little to do — but did it very well. He delivered the libretto’s funniest line of recitative with perfect deadpan, and his one aria (“Amor da guerra e pace”) showed off an agile, grainy baritone with punchy notes on top and bottom.
Corey Jamason led the SFCM Baroque Ensemble in a crisp performance with sharp cutoffs, teasing trills, and suspenseful pauses. Handel’s danceable tunes were appropriately bouncy and energetic, and the ensemble did a great job of building tonal tension and then bringing it to a sudden, crashing resolution. Special mention goes to the oboe and recorder players (MaryAnn Shore and Marianne Pfau) for wonderful tone and accuracy on their exposed solos and to the continuo players for carrying on an expressive dialogue with the singers’ recitative.
Conservatory performances always feature singers at different levels of development. Some are polished enough for the professional stage; others show exhilarating potential in need of further work. In both cases, hearing these young voices leaves me excited for many more decades of operagoing.