The pellet with the poison’s in the flagon with the dragon…
In 1724, Handel provided his audiences at the King’s Theatre in London’s Haymarket, with three superb operas; firstly Giulio Cesare a dazzling display of seduction and conquest, lastly Rodelinda, a poetic consideration of ambition and love, and in the middle Tamerlano, a serious, dark piece about loyalty, power, duty and devotion. Set entirely indoors, and using his characteristic mode of characters exploring their emotions in an aria and then moving on, Tamerlano might seem to be the perfect opera for our own troubled, uncertain times.
The character of the eponymous anti-hero has been presented in many contrasting ways; Marlowe’s very title of Tamburlaine the Great, written around 1587, indicates the dramatist’s view of the story, whilst Nicholas Rowe’s Tamerlane of 1701 turns the tyrant into a Christian hero. The Grange Festival opts for a concept of him as a spoilt, bling-encrusted young blade, who really cannot see why everyone doesn’t see things his way, right? Raffaele Pe is perfect in the role; wearing all that gold lame and snakeskin as if he sported it every day in real life, he presents the cruel tyrant as not so much irrational as perplexed. His singing is dazzling, bringing the house down in ‘A dispetto d’un volto ingrato’ and ingratiatingly persuasive even in short recitatives.
The great tenor role of Bajazet is unusual for Handel, and it provides an ideal showpiece for a singer with the requisite acting skills, which Paul Nilon certainly has. His tone is a little grainy these days, but he shapes the grand arias, most notably ‘Forte e lieto’ with impressive skill, and is very moving in his final farewell to his daughter, Asteria. Sophie Bevan sings her with impassioned commitment, managing her changing moods with convincing aplomb and singing with elegance, especially in the lovely aria ‘Cor di padre e cor d’amante.’
There are times during this opera when one longs for a little less countertenor – now that’s something you don’t often hear a Handel lover say – but especially in Act I, Patrick Terry’s light, cultivated voice has so much to do and so many moods to encapsulate that the sound of a bass might come as a relief. That’s not to find fault with him, since his interpretation is always stylish.
“…Tamerlano might seem to be the perfect opera for our own troubled, uncertain times”
Angharad Lyddon’s sophisticated Irene is the perfect match for Tamerlano, her singing bringing to mind Jean Rigby’s in the English National Opera’s Xerxes with its warm tone and classic phrasing. Stuart Orme makes much of the small role of Leone, and the various servants are convincingly portrayed.
Robert Howarth and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra give a sparkling account of the score, with especially vibrant contributions from the continuo. Daniel Slater’s production is vaguely modern in costume and style, the gloomy interior resembling a cross between the old U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square and the offices of the Politburo. Robert Innes Hopkins’ design lends itself well to depicting a prison or a palace dining room, and the gold-trimmed sofa and dining table contrast well with the neutral background. Johanna Town’s lighting subtly points up the differences in each environment.
This Tamerlano may not have the striking appeal of the Grange Festival’s previous Handel productions, but that is mainly due to the nature of the work, which is serious and profound, and this production, whilst not setting anything on fire, does justice to its important elements.
• Details of future performances can be found here.