Cambridge Handel Opera Company – Tamerlano

Tamerlano – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym [1731 version; sung in English]

Tamerlano – James Laing
Bajazet – Christopher Turner
Asteria – Caroline Taylor
Andronico – Thalie Knights
Irene – Leila Zanette
Leone – Jolyon Loy
Zaida – Victoria Adler
Guards – Flóki Carlsen & Johan Ribbing

Sounds Baroque
Julian Perkins

Dionysios Kyropoulos – Director
Rachel Szmukler – Set & Costume Designer
Trui Malten – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 5 April, 2022
Venue: Great Hall, The Leys School, Cambridge, UK

Tamerlano is one of three masterpieces Handel composed consecutively in the mid-1720s for his company The Royal Academy, although compared with its more generally popular siblings Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda, this opera has been acclaimed more by afficionados perhaps, on account of its more interiorised, psychological study of the captive Bajazet. The remarkable continuous sequence of recitative and ariosos which Handel set for the latter’s final appearance before he is led out to his death, and the concluding coro – supposedly the typical happy ending of an opera seria – in the minor key clearly signals sympathy for the fallen ruler, and questions the sense of hope there may be in Tamerlano’s expressed intention to govern less tyrannically.

Dionysios Kyropoulos’s production for the Cambridge Handel Opera Company (which revives the Cambridge Handel Opera Group) keeps the setting appropriately simple, to focus on the tense relations among the characters. The drama follows the attempts of the Ottoman sultan Bajazet (the historical Bayezid I) and his daughter Asteria to overcome defeat and imprisonment at the hands of Tamerlano (the Turco-Mongol warlord Timur, known variously as the Lame or the Great). With his cap and 1930s military uniform the latter somewhat resembles Mussolini. That decade – and presumably, therefore, the brief rise and decline of Fascism – are also implied by the costumes of the other characters, and by the fragment of a fallen neo-Classical column on stage, suggestively used also as Tamerlano’s throne on occasions. Otherwise the connection with that political movement is not pursued, but the Middle Eastern geographical and historical context of the original story seems to be hinted at with the oriental rug periodically draped over that column, and the honeycomb pattern over the floor in turquoise, evoking the colour named after the Turkish Ottoman Empire which Bayazet’s descendants went on to consolidate once they conquered Constantinople.

Clear diction of the libretto in English translation (in the absence of surtitles) and alert acting by all the characters bring the drama to life, making more apparent what the production otherwise only implies. As Tamerlano, James Laing – who sang the equivalent role in Vivaldi’s version of the narrative, Bajazet, in Irish National Opera’s recent production seen at the Royal Opera House – delivers a performance initially of almost eerie control and forbearance in his airy execution of the music. But he instils a more fraught, stressed dimension to the role (with continued, impressive musical precision) later on as he confronts the plots against him. It’s a fascinatingly different approach to the loutish portrayal he gave at Covent Garden. 

Christopher Turner gives an almost consistently calm account of Bajazet – one of the few great tenor roles in Italian Baroque opera – that generally suits his stoical acceptance of captivity and death at one level. But at another there could be a more probing engagement with both the character and music, though that does finally come with his last, moving sequence. It seems odd that at no point in this production is Bajazet shown in shackles or confinement but, clad in civilian dress, is free to come and go at Tamerlano’s palace like any welcome house guest. To that extent it totally omits any graphic depiction of the sultan’s incarceration, so viscerally realised in Irish National Opera’s take on Bajazet. 

The natural, dignified force of Caroline Taylor’s singing as his daughter Asteria exactly expresses her courageous resolve as she seeks to turn the horror of Tamerlano’s demand to marry her, to her own advantage by using it as the means to wield revenge upon him. By contrast Leila Zanette exudes a more overt and colourful fury as Irene, the Princess of Trebizond, Tamerlano’s betrothed whom he has passed over in favour of Asteria in order to cement his military conquests. In the trouser role of Andronico, the prince of Byzantium who has allied himself with Tamerlano out of convenience, but is in love with Asteria, Thalie Knights offers a composed, even reserved account which underlines the sense of the character’s weakness and being a pawn in the power games that are played out. Jolyon Loy presents a wry face to the part of Leone, a confidant of Andronico, providing the sort of blitheness which his more naively earnest master lacks.

Sounds Baroque, led by Julian Perkins in the pit, are set out more or less in two parallel lines facing each other, in the manner of standard opera orchestras of the eighteenth-century with continuo instruments at both ends. That gives a very solid bass-line to the instrumental support which adds a dramatic, thrilling edge to the performance, but it does sometimes overwhelm the singers and become relentless. With a generous number of strings for a comparatively small theatre (7 violins, 3 violas, 3 cellos, and one double bass, alongside two harpsichords and a theorbo) the interpretation is quite measured in the Overture and first few numbers, but Perkins moves things on a bit as the opera progresses. It’s rare to make the observation in relation to a period instrument ensemble, but sometimes a lighter touch and a brisker tempo would make the performance more dynamically urgent. In any case the sonority is leavened delightfully with the appearance of lithe obbligato solos from flute, period clarinets, and bassoon in various numbers which keep the ears diverted. In general this is a taut, involving realisation of a landmark opera of the Baroque era.

Further performances to April 9

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