Games of Thrones: Handel’s Tamerlano at the Buxton Festival
July 13, 2016
Bachtrack by Dominic Lowe
Handel’s Tamerlano was written during what posterity now regards as a golden year for the composer when two of his other most popular and enduring works, Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda were composed. By any standards of the genre, the plot is convoluted: the Tartar leader Tamerlano has defeated the Ottoman Sultan, Bajazet, whose daughter, Asteria, is in love with the Greek prince Andronico, an ally of Tamerlano who has been promised the throne of Byzantium. Despite being engaged to the Trapezuntine princess Irene, Tamerlano decides he wants to marry Asteria, and Andronico is co-opted into persuading her to agree. Furious at the perceived betrayal, she agrees in order to get close enough to kill Tamerlano. The plot winds and weaves; as the opera comes to an end, Asteria attempts to poison Tamerlano, who is warned by Irene of the danger, and Bajazet drinks the poison to spite the Tartar overlord. Tamerlano’s anger is assuaged and the marital arrangements revert to their pre-opera state. Definitely not one to watch while under the influence if any sense is to be made of the plot.
The production was marginally vague; judging by the clothes, director Francis Matthews brought the setting foward to recent times. Tamerlano appeared to be some kind of super rich collector – paintings, modern art and relics littered the set which was reminiscent of some generous New York loft and Tamerlano strutted around in a rather natty bronze dressing gown. The opera opened with Bajazet in a glass display case, a powerful comment on the power of Tamerlano’s money. My interpretation based on a line about Tamerlano’s low birth was that he was some kind of nouveau riche, suffered from an inferiority complex and was overcompensating with all the lavish clothing and surroundings, hence his desire to marry up. It was a well-designed set and apart from the occasional baffling moment – evil servants spontaneously springing into dance – it didn’t work too badly.
The quality of singing was high. Particularly impressive were Marie Lys and Owen Willetts singing Asteria and Andronico respectively. Lys sang with great versatility, showing a silvery crystalline soprano in glorious trills that bounced round the higher register like a kangaroo on speed. Impeccable diction and a captivating stage presence that veered from imperious to ferocious with alarming rapidity brought the character to life. Willetts’ lovelorn Andronico was a bit of an angsty teen, next to the poison-quaffing Bajazet and his homicidal boss, but the singing from this countertenor can only be described as classy. Initial impressions of the voice was incisiveness; it cut through the orchestra like the proverbial butter-knife. There’s real depth and colour to it though, and a virility that makes it a formidable instrument. Willetts’ attention to the text was also noticeable; every syllable was contoured, shaped and made to matter, and the beauty and ease in all parts of the voice gave Willetts a substantial vocal palette with which to play. The duet in Act III between these two splendid singers was the highlight of the evening.
The role of Tamerlano calls for a higher, lighter voice, which suited Rupert Enticknap, who sang with a pale agility shot through with psychotic menace. Paul Nilon, singing Bajazet, an unusually strong tenor part for Handel, was at his strongest in the final act, attacking Tamerlano in a remarkable cascade of notes. The voice was somewhat raw, and Nilon’s technique and style wasn’t always shown at its best, but there was plenty of force, and his acting captured the dichotomy of the conquered ruler and the anxious father well.
Handel didn’t give Irene much to sing, but Catherine Hopper made a visual impression as the fiancée scorned, straight-backed and regal. Hopper’s gentle voice seemed a little out of place, and her projection wasn’t brilliant, especially when delivering slightly uneasy coloratura. Baritone Robert Davies’ Leone sang with a twinkle in his eye and his voice; the role calls for an unusually low tenor, but it is not uncommon for a baritone to be substituted. His voice occasionally lacked clarity, but there was no shortage of character to it.
Laurence Cummings’ English Concert produced a supple, golden sound that managed to combine constant drama with delicacy. Stylish playing and real impetus prevented the work from being ponderous and was the finishing touch to a production of Baroque excellence.