The action takes place in the Royal Palace where Tamerlano, ruler of the vast Tartar empire, is holding the defeated Turkish sultan Bajazet prisoner, in the days immediately following the Tartar victory over the Ottoman Empire.
Bajazet faces certain death at the hands of his captor and has asked the Greek prince Andronico to take care of his daughter, Asteria, after his demise. Tamerlano tells Andronico that he intends to renounce his fiancée, the princess Irene, to marry Asteria instead. Not knowing or caring that Andronico loves Asteria, Tamerlano offers him the Greek Empire and Irene’s hand in marriage, then orders him to communicate Asteria’s fate to Bajazet. When Asteria learns that she is to marry Tamerlano, she is convinced that Andronico has betrayed
her to gain power. Bajazet, enraged, declares that Asteria shall not marry Tamerlano, though it cost him his head. Irene arrives at the palace and is furious when she learns that she has been slighted. Andronico assures her of his support and suggests that she keep her identity a secret by disguising herself as a messenger sent by Irene, in order to be able to influence the course of events. Andronico learns from Tamerlano that Asteria has apparently accepted the offer of marriage. Devastated, he tries to justify himself to Asteria, who scornfully dismisses him.
Tamerlano receives Irene’s messenger (Irene herself in disguise) and attempts to justify his decision. Asteria reassures the messenger that she will not come between Tamerlano and Irene. Bajazet learns from Andronico that Asteria’s marriage is imminent. Forcing himself into his daughter’s presence, he voices his contempt for her in an impassioned outpouring. Asteria is distraught and produces the dagger she had concealed in order to kill Tamerlano on their wedding night. Father and daughter are arrested. Bajazet and Asteria plan to kill themselves by means of a poison that Bajazet has kept hidden. Andronico tells Tamerlano of his love for Asteria. Tamerlano decides to kill Bajazet and to make Asteria a slave, ordering her to wait upon him at table. Asteria uses this opportunity to slip the poison that Bajazet has given her into Tamerlano’s goblet. This is observed by Irene, who denounces her and reveals her own true identity. Tamerlano rewards Irene by promising to marry her again, and orders that Asteria be raped by the slaves of the harem while Andronico looks on.
Bajazet rages impotently and departs, leaving Irene to give free rein to her joy. News comes through that Bajazet has poisoned himself, and Asteria begs Tamerlano to kill her too. Overwhelmed by this tragic turn of events, Tamerlano considers his options.
© Pinchgut Opera 2015
Even as the walls seem to be crumbling around them, the characters of Bajazet live in a musical world of unparalleled beauty. As one culture is dismissed and destroyed by another, with a kind of cruelty that is both frightening and yet familiar, the personal and emotional lives of those in power are given a careful kind of examination by Vivaldi.
To witness the literal and figurative stripping away of the things that are held most dear, is a terrifying and moving experience. As Bajazet and his daughter Asteria face the nightmare of losing their identities, they fight to maintain their history and their dignity. Tamerlano uses his boundless power to sublimate everyone around him, in a mortifying display of unchecked control. Between these forces, characters find a place for profound love and desire amid a world-changing sadness. The poignancy of bitter endings and unexpected loss are brought to the fore in this amazingly powerful opera.
Emotion at its most potent, power at its most dangerous, and music at its greatest expression of pure theatricality are at the center of this tragic, and moving opera.
– Chas Rader-Shieber, Director