Visual and aural feast – Handel’s Tamerlano in Buxton
Planet Hugill by Robert Hugill
Serious psychological drama and seriously good singing
The third in a remarkable trio of productions at this year’s Buxton Festival was Handel’s Tamerlano, a co-production between the festival and the English Concert, with Laurence Cummings conducting the English Concert in the pit. Directed by Francis Matthews, designed by Adrian Linford, with lighting by Simon Corder, the production featured Rupert Enticknap as Tamerlano, Paul Nilon as Bajazet, Owen Willetts as Andronico, Marie Lys as Asteria, Catherine Hopper as Irene and Robert Davies as Leone.
One of a trio of great opera’s which Handel wrote in a single year, 1724/25, Tamerlano is perhaps less immediately loved than Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda. In contrast to these, Tamerlano has little outward action, little plot, and instead concentrates on the psychological contest between Tamerlano, the Emperor of the Tartars, and his captive Bajazet, Sultan of the Turks. The opera places the five main characters (Tamerlano, Bajazet, his daughter Asteria, her lover Andronico and Tamerlano’s betrothed Irene) in a single place and concentrates on their interaction under Tamerlano’s imperious interference.
It was Francis Matthews’ first Handel opera, yet he clearly ‘gets’ Handelian opera seria and though the action was busy at times there was a clear sense of him dramatising the music (not just the libretto), nor was there any hint of a suggestion that the action was necessary to keep the audience entertained. This was serious psychological drama, proving yet again that opera seria and da capo arias really can work as thrilling drama in the right hands. It helped that Matthews got some stunning performances from his cast. It says something for the standard of Handel performance at the moment that we can often take for granted the technical abilities of young singers and look for that bit extra. The cast here was all on top form and provided musical delights with that bit extra too.
Adrian Linford created a single dazzling set which housed and concentrated the entire action, encapsulating Francis Matthews idea that Tamerlano is someone for whom anything and anyone can be bought. The set was an Aladdin’s cave of great objects, a wall with great objets trouvées embedded, Trajan’s column as the centre of a staircase, rich pots, gilt chairs. This Tamerlano was someone powerful enough to collect anything he wanted, and viewed people similarly. The end of the overture opened the action with a visual coup, Simeon John-Wake (Tamerlano’s follower) triumphing over Paul Nilon’s Bajazet in a pose captured in a painting.
Linford’s costumes were equally dazzling and whilst modern dress, Tamerlano and his two followers (Simeon John-Wake and Jennifer Parker) had a touch of the exotic East about them in the style of dress, richness of Tamerlano’s fabric and even dressing of hair. That Paul Nilon’s Bajazet was just another acquisition was emphasised by his prison being in fact a glass cabinet, Bajazet on display with the other objets. Yet the world created was one of nervousness and suspicion as Tamerlano’s two followers constantly eavesdropped, with everyone being just part of Tamerlano’s games.
Tamerlano is a long opera and inevitably it was heavily cut to fit into a duration of three hours, including one 20-minute interval. Whilst there were substantial losses, the sense of the piece was preserved and we kept the large scale drama of the Act Two throne room scene and Bajazet’s death scene which forms the culmination of the drama.
Rupert Enticknap as Tamerlano was physically imposing and wonderfully exotic looking, but Handel’s arias for the character are far more equable than one might have expected. So Enticknap’s Tamerlano was less the uneven-tempered conqueror and more a plutocrat lacking emotional intelligence. This perhaps relied a little too much on the setting, the plutocrat in the midst of his collection of great objects, and I would have liked a little more of the fearsome martinet in Enticknap’s performance. But he sang the role thrillingly, commanding the room and rarely showing uncertainly; a strong performance and a technically fine one too with a lovely bright focus to his tone. Where this worked well was at the end, where Tamerlano’s change of heart was far less a volte-face and simply another move in one of his games.
Paul Nilon’s Bajazet was far less physically imposing, but had the moral stature to stand up to Enticknap’s Tamerlano. Nilon’s voice lacks the grace and suaveness of some performers, but his technique is strong and he used those very qualities in his voice to create a sense of a character on edge. From his powerful opening aria it was clear that this was a going to be a remarkable portrayal, as Nilon brought a rare intensity to Bajazet’s music. There was desperation too, and as Handel’s drama progressed we sensed the character going to the edge. Nilon also engendered our sympathy, so that Bajazet’s sense of moral outrage did not become wearing, this was a complex and intriguing portrayal really conveyed through the music.
Owen Willetts cut quite a slight character as Andronico, but there was nothing slight about Willetts’ voice. This was strong, and beautifully evenly produced throughout the range as well as having an attractive warmth too. He was capable of moving from the tenderness of his love for Asteria to desperation and ultimately defiance of Tamerlano. Technically strong, Willetts performance meant that whilst his Andronico was gentle, he was never weak.
Marie Lys brought great charm to the role of Asteria. Whilst she had that combination of lightness of touch and killer technique needed by any Handel heroine, Lys also brought out the character’s great strength. There was a toughness to her performance which showed that she clearly was her father’s daughter. She and Willetts were wonderfully tender in their duet, rightly one of the loveliest things in the opera, yet you never doubted for one moment that Lys’s Asteria had the strength of character to kill Tamerlano on their marriage bed, and her strong sense of moral uprightness came out both in her demeanour and in her musical performance.
Catherine Hopper was a finely elegant Irene, very much the Princess yet quietly capable. Hopper has an attractive soft-grained voice though her Irene combined this gentleness with a strength of purpose. Irene does not get as many arias as the other main characters, but Hopper really made them tell. There was in interesting frisson between Hopper’s Irene and Robert Davies’ Leone which made you suspect that Tamerlano’s home life was going to be interesting in the future.
Robert Davies as Leone benefited from keeping his his two arias he addressed the audience directly, moralising about the events which Davies did engagingly.
Whilst individual arias in the opera are memorable, it is in the recitative where the real drama happens. Here the cast were idiomatically vivid in their performances, so that we were thrillingly engaged in the psychological drama. The great throne room scene (the longest single span of recitative that Handel wrote) which concludes Act Two is where Tamerlano enthrones Asteria but the psychological power struggle eventually leads to her stepping down and revealing she was going to kill Tamerlano on their first kiss. Here Matthews and his cast created vivid sense of the underlying tensions, the simple recitative leading to Paul Nilon’s intense accompanied recitative and finally the lovely moment when Marie Lys’s Asteria addresses the same beautifully simple phrase to each character, each response is a different short aria before Lys’ movingly simple final aria.
The games continue in Act Three as Tamerlano makes Asteria serve him, but her plan to poison Tamerlano’s drink is foiled by Irene (who intends to marry Tamerlano come what may). This leads to the most amazing scene in the opera, Bajazet’s suicide and on-stage death. Paul Nilon’s performance here was riveting, rightly a culmination in the long arc that his character travelled, and viscerally thrilling end to the opera.
Simeon John-Wake and Jennifer Parker as Tamerlano’s two attendants provided a strong physical backdrop to the proceedings adding to the threatening atmosphere. John-Wake was also the movement director, creating a small amount of telling movement.
In the pit, Laurence Cummings and the English Concert brought style and drama to the music. Handel did not write for a lavish orchestra, but Cummings and the ensemble made the details of the scoring tell and in the relatively intimate confines of Buxton Opera House we were able to appreciate all the fine details.
Far more than just a sequence of gorgeous arias, this was an engrossing evening of psychological theatre, all concerned really brought out the underlying themes of Handel’s drama. My only real moan was that there wasn’t enough, and I would have loved to have heard more of the opera in such a thrilling production. I do hope that this production does not disappear after the four performances at Buxton, it deserves to be seen again.
This has been a vintage year for the festival with a remarkable trio of opera productions, Beethoven’s Leonore, Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Handel’s Tamerlano showing a variety of approach but a fine consistency in the level of execution. The festival runs until 24 July 2016.