Handel’s Tamerlano, written for the Royal Academy in 1724, is something of a secret pleasure for fans of 18th-century Italian opera. Lacking the magical stage machinery of the likes of Rinaldo, and with a low quotient of showcase arias to tickle the sensation seeker’s ear, it nevertheless has a claim to greatness. Why? It has one of the composer’s most grimly determined plots and a set of characters upon which Handel lavishes his utmost psychological insight. 

In 1402, the Mongol herdsman Timur defeated his enemy, the Turkish sultan Bayezid, who history relates he had carted around in a cage for months afterwards. In the opera, the wicked (i.e. Eastern) tyrant Tamerlano has designs on Bajazet’s daughter, Asteria, and sends his ally, the Greek (hence noble) Andronico to convey his desires to the maiden and her vengeful father. Unbeknownst to Tamerlano, Andronico is himself in love with Asteria and from these complications a tense, potentially bloody political opera ensues. 

Handel wrote the work at speed, as was his wont, but revised it at his leisure on more than one occasion in order to create as tight a musical drama as he was capable of. It culminates in a thrilling scene of recitative and accompanied recitative which hinges on whether or not Asteria will sit upon, or stand down from, the throne. Sounds less than entirely compelling? Just try it! 

This new recording, under Riccardo Minasi and his fine period band Il Pomo d’Oro, boasts an outstanding cast. As the semi-psychotic Tamerlano, the Catalan countertenor Xavier Sabata, who recently wowed Hobart Baroque, outshines his rivals on other CDs. His rich fruitcake of a voice is strong at the bottom where others falter, but it’s the acting skills that really stand out, offering a convincing portrayal of an unstable despot. 

Matching him step for dramatic step is John Mark Ainsley as an intense, complex Bajazet. His way with the recitative is unmatched and the voice is lyrical, yet characterful. Max Emanuel Cencic, once the premier male soprano but now firmly an alto, is a warmly sympathetic Andronico though his dramatic chops are rather wasted on this vacillating romantic lead. 

Standing out, as she does in all things these days, is the Canadian soprano Karina Gauvin as Asteria. Given the emotional highs and lows of the role she seizes every moment (and then some), singing her socks off and chewing the vocal scenery in turn. The lovely mezzo of Ruxandra Donose and a resonant Pavel Kudinov complete the cast in one of the best new opera recordings to have come my way this year.