Saturday, June 18, 2022

The Grange, Northington, Alresford, Hampshire, England

Guest Reviewer, Curtis Rogers

Handel’s opera Tamerlano (1724) has tended to be more respected than loved as a masterpiece, given how comparatively infrequently it is performed. But a production for this summer’s Grange Festival and a presentation by the Cambridge Handel Opera Company a few months ago – alongside an appearance from Irish National Opera of Vivaldi’s setting of exactly the same historical episode at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in February – suggest that audiences are more ready to contemplate its exacting and probing psychological depiction of the power struggle between Tamerlane in his ruthless empire-building, and the Ottoman sultan Bayezid I (died 1402).

Daniel Slater’s production places the drama in an appropriately dark but contemporary setting that looks like a concrete bunker. Initially it evokes the claustrophobic confines of Bajazet’s prison, deep underground, within a limited space at the front of the stage, happening to resemble Adele Thomas’s arrangement at the Linbury, if without the visceral sense of the sultan’s capture in the latter, where he was chained like a wild animal. A geometric grille also vaguely suggests the central Asian provenance of the original scenario. Through the scenes of the first part of this performance, the set is progressively peeled back in layers, receding in perspective to a bay at the back, with the concrete wings at the sides grimly evoking the stern, uncompromising authority of Tamerlano in this, his austere palace. But that also neatly recalls the layout of Baroque theatres in Handel’s day with the legs of the side wings cascading back to the rear of the stage, and so bringing a potently reinterpreted authenticity to the production. In the second half the wings remain broodingly exposed in the gloom, with the grid ceiling like a cage, sloping down menacingly towards the back, and seemingly symbolising Bajazet’s inevitable descent into the oblivion of death when he commits suicide.

Whilst Tamerlano’s leather jacket, imprinted trousers and bling jewellery make him look every inch the gangster-upstart warlord (or at least like something out of The Only Way Is Essex) in the modern age, the Rococo furnishings of his palace’s rooms in this context ironically also bring to bear the age of Handel to suggest the vulgarity of his tastes and outlook. The last, tragic scenes of the opera play out around a banquet, before Bajazet meets his death (and only then is pudding served by the attendants) – such a setting also surely making a sardonic comment upon the audience’s own feasting during the long interval shortly beforehand, and ensuring that, as any astute director does, Slater has the last laugh.

Raffaele Pe gives a magnificent performance in the title role, combining three qualities that are rare in any one singer (never mind a countertenor perhaps, having to recreate a castrato role): an absolutely secure vocal timbre, able to deliver all the notes with often startling fluidity and richness; the ability to embody his character expressively through the music (the threatening runs of his cadenza at the end of ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato’ as he is provoked to fury being a fine case in point); and a charismatic actor, conveying the complexity of personality even of this tyrant. The only regret is that we do not see more of Pe in the UK.

Paul Nilon’s Bajazet is a touch catarrhal as he negotiates an extraordinary range of music in one of the greatest vocal roles Handel ever wrote, but his interpretation certainly also has the measure of the character’s psychological agonies as he contends with his enemy, and also, so he thinks, with his daughter Asteria’s treacherous acceptance of Tamerlano’s marriage proposal. Illness prevented Sophie Bevan from taking that part, and sung instead by Caroline Taylor from the side as Louise Bakker silently acted. If her deportment is a little stiff at times, that is not surprising in having stepped up to the challenge at such short notice, but otherwise she conveys effectively Asteria’s struggles with her conscience. Taylor, who sang the role in Cambridge earlier this year, creates as vigorous and determined account as then, whilst holding back tenderness for when she is finally reconciled with Andronico, her true lover.

In the other countertenor role, Patrick Terry provides a much more mellow musical dimension, though still agile, conjuring the character’s feckless nature as he is played off by Tamerlano, Bajazet, and Asteria to serve their ends. Angharad Lyddon exerts a fearsome, flouncy sense of righteous anger as Irene, the princess to whom Tamerlano is engaged before he casts his eye on Asteria, and who confronts him in disguise as her own ambassador. In the sized-down part of Leone, Stuart Orme provides solid support.

Modern instruments are rarely encountered in the performance of Handel today, so it’s a rare pleasure to hear Robert Howarth conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The sound is rather denser than many listeners will now be used to in this repertoire, or perhaps even ever have experienced – though seasoned Handelians will recall John Moriarty’s recording of Tamerlano. There is often a grave register to the arias in Howarth’s interpretation, which can lack nuance in phrasing, and the vivid contrasts in mood or Affekt from one aria to the next is often missing, as is a cumulative sense of tension and urgency. But overall the sonority’s shady weight – especially from the continuo line with its robust double bass and bassoon foundation – suits the temper of this profound work, whilst the recitatives still carry the drama forwards vitally and expressively.

With its strongly committed cast, and by observing some of the conventions of Handelian theatre in setting and choreography closely, but not slavishly, Slater’s production compellingly realises the spirit of this masterpiece and shows how the formalities of Baroque opera seria can be reimagined to speak convincingly to a contemporary audience. Standing alongside this Festival’s memorable productions of Agrippina and Belshazzar in recent years, and at a time when Handel’s operas are being increasingly staged again, this current run should serve as a revelation to those who doubt or are unacquainted with them as a viable art form.

Further performances to July 3

Handel Tamerlano – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Tamerlano – Raffaele Pe

Bajazet – Paul Nilon

Asteria – Caroline Taylor

Andronico – Patrick Terry

Irene – Angharad Lyddon

Leone – Stuart Orme

Actors – Alex Comona, Molly Moody, Korey J. Ryan, Holly Sonabend & Ray Strasser-King

Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

Robert Howarth

Daniel Slater – Director

Robert Innes Hopkins – Designer

Johanna Town – Lighting Designer