The tablet with the poison is in the bottle with the dragon…
In 1724 Handel offered his audience at the King’s Theater in Haymarket, London, three superb operas; first of all Julius Caesar a dazzling demonstration of seduction and conquest, finally Rodelinda, a poetic reflection on ambition and love, and in the middle Tamerlane, a serious, dark play about loyalty, power, duty and devotion. Taking place entirely indoors and using its signature mode of characters exploring their emotions in an aria and then moving on, Tamerlane might seem like the perfect opera for our own troubled and uncertain times.
The eponymous antihero character has been portrayed in many contrasting ways; Marlowe’s very title Tamburlaine the Greatwritten around 1587, indicates the playwright’s view of the story, while that of Nicholas Rowe Tamerlane of 1701 transforms the tyrant into a Christian hero. The Grange Festival goes with a concept of him as a spoiled, bling-encrusted young blade, who really can’t see why everyone doesn’t see things his way, can he? Raffaele Pe is perfect in the role; Wearing all that gold lamé and snakeskin as if he wore it every day in real life, he presents the cruel tyrant as less irrational than puzzled. Her singing is dazzling, dazzling in “A dispetto d’un volto ingrato” and insinuatingly persuasive even in short recitatives.
Bajazet’s big tenor role is unusual for Handel and makes an ideal centerpiece for a singer with the requisite acting skills, which Paul Nilon certainly possesses. His tone is a little gritty these days, but he shapes the great tunes, notably “Forte e lieto” with impressive skill, and is very moving in his final farewell to his daughter, Asteria. Sophie Bevan sings it with passionate commitment, managing her changing moods with convincing aplomb and singing with elegance, especially in the beautiful aria ‘Cor di padre e cor d’amante’.
There are times in this opera where you dream of having a little less countertenor – that’s something you don’t often hear from a Handel lover – but especially in the act. I, the light and cultured voice of Patrick Terry has so much to do and so many atmospheres. to summarize that the sound of a bass can be a relief. This is not to blame him, because his interpretation is always stylish.
“…Tamerlane might seem like the perfect opera for our own troubled and uncertain times”
Angharad Lyddon’s sophisticated Irene is the perfect match for Tamerlano, her singing reminiscent of that of Jean Rigby in English National Opera. Xerxes with its warm tone and classic phrasing. Stuart Orme makes a big deal of Leone’s small role, and the various minions are portrayed convincingly.
Robert Howarth and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra give a sparkling account of the score, with particularly vibrant contributions from the continuo. Daniel Slater’s production is vaguely modern in costume and styling, with the dark interior resembling a cross between the former US Embassy in Grosvenor Square and the offices of the Politburo. Robert Innes Hopkins’ design lends itself well to portraying a prison or palace dining room, and the gold sofa and dining table contrast well against the neutral backdrop. Johanna Town’s lighting subtly emphasizes the differences of each environment.
This Tamerlane may not have the gripping appeal of previous Grange Festival productions of Handel, but that’s mainly due to the nature of the work, which is serious and deep, and this production, while not burning anything, makes justice to its important elements.
• Details of future performance can be found here.