Thirty-odd years ago everyone was too busy listening to Vivaldi’s concertos to bother about his 90 or so operas. Two decades ago the operas began to appear in earnest on disc; now, with audiences ready to look beyond Handel for a baroque opera fix, they are reaching the stage. Bajazet is the first Vivaldi opera to be staged under the Royal Opera House’s roof, and if anyone needs persuading that this is a good idea then Adele Thomas’s production, a collaboration with Irish National Opera that has already toured Ireland for two weeks, should do the trick.
Thomas adds a bit of helpful context with an opening monologue giving the story so far, introducing the title character as “the Thunderbolt of Allah” and his captor, Tamerlano, is a warlord descended from Genghis Khan. The ensuing story mainly milks the baroque opera tropes of love, betrayal and disguise, but it’s a credit to Thomas’s insightful direction and to the six-strong cast that we remain invested in it, rooting for Gianluca Margheri’s noble-sounding Bajazet and wondering what James Laing’s thuggish, volatile Tamerlano will do next.
Molly O’Cathain’s set is basically a box made from slabs of glowing sandstone, and it loves the voices, especially that of the sweet-toned countertenor Eric Jurenas as the hapless go-between Andronico. The vocal highlight comes with the arrival of Claire Booth as the jilted Irene, brilliantly flinging off relentless cascades of notes in her first aria. This, in fact, isn’t by Vivaldi, but is one of several arias cherry-picked from other composers’ work, as was normal practice for time-pressed composers of this period; it is by Riccardo Broschi, who originally wrote it as a showpiece for his superstar brother Farinelli.
Vivaldi kept the good characters for himself, though, and a contrasting highlight from his own pen is the aria for Bajazet’s daughter Asteria in which Niamh O’Sullivan’s velvety mezzo-soprano is doubled by a grainy solo violin; accompanied only by cello and theorbo, it’s a touching moment of quiet. Otherwise the orchestra, at floor level rather than in a pit, is strongly present. In recitatives, when Peter Whelan’s insistent harpsichord makes things rather opaque, it’s sometimes too present; in arias, when Whelan’s direction keeps energy levels strong and the phrasing purposeful, it’s just right.