Tuesday 12 April 2022

Historical stagecraft & modern sensibilities: a powerful Tamerlano from Cambridge Handel Opera Company

Handel: Tamerlano - James Laing, Leila Zanette, Christopher Turner, Caroline Taylor - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)
Handel: Tamerlano - James Laing, Leila Zanette, Christopher Turner, Caroline Taylor - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)

Handel: Tamerlano - James Laing, Christopher Turner, Thalie Knights, Caroline Taylor, Leila Zanette, director: Dionysios Kyropoulos, conductor Julian Perkins; Cambridge Handel Opera Company at The Leys
9 April 2022 (★★★★½)

Cambridge Handel Opera Company (CHOC) debuted in 2018 with Handel's Rodelinda (but the company inherited the mantle of Cambridge Handel Opera Group which ran from 1985 to 2013). CHOC's follow up production was intended to be Handel's Tamerlano in 2020, but events got in the way and the production finally debuted last week at the Great Hall, The Leys, Cambridge (seen 9 April 2022). The opera was directed by Dionysios Kyropoulos, conducted by Julian Perkins (CHOC's artistic director) and designed by Rachel Szmukler. James Laing was Tamerlano and Christopher Turner was Bajazet with Caroline Taylor as Asteria, Thalie Knights as Andronico, Leila Zanette as Irene and Jolyon Loy as Leone.

Tamerlano might be a great masterpiece but it remains something of a challenge for 21st century performance conventions and for modern audiences - the sheer concentration of the plot, five people confined together exploring their mutual interactions, the length of the arias and the time it takes to work things through. CHOC's solution was to approach Dionysios Kyropoulos. 

He is Professor of Historical Stagecraft at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama [see my interview] and is very interested in combining historical stagecraft with modern performance, in fact one of his descriptions of his course at the Guildhall is acting for singers. Certainly there was nothing self-consciously historical about the production. The eclectic costumes were loosely 20th century, the set was simply black curtains with a fallen column (used variously as a place of reclining and a throne). The acting style was certainly well away from the idea of singers standing and striking a pose. Instead, there was a repertoire of gestures and poses worked into the drama and used according to rhetorical principles. Kyropoulos did not have the luxury of a long rehearsal period (though there were some workshops beforehand) and it was clear that some singers were more accustomed to using the repertoire of gestures and poses than others. But there was a vivid sense of engagement to the performance, with the ensemble scenes having a sense of active drama as those listening responded in a way that drew them (and us) into the drama.

Handel: Tamerlano - Thalie Knights, James Laing- Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)
Handel: Tamerlano - Thalie Knights, James Laing- Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)

There was no extraneous business, no sense of the audience needing to be entertained during the long arias, and certainly a solution to the problem of what to do with the singers' hands. In this production, the throne room scene (the longest sequence of secco recitative that Handel wrote) was positively gripping throughout.

Of course, none of this would work without strong performances and CHOC's cast was strong and well balanced.

The role of Bajazet is something of a challenge. Handel wrote few such tenor roles and finding singers up to the challenge of combining drama, highly ornamented vocal lines and period performance, along with the necessary stamina, is tricky, especially as the tessitura is somewhat low (one recent recording cast the role with a high baritone). We last saw Christopher Turner singing an impressive Pollione to Helena Dix's Norma with Chelsea Opera Group [see my review]. Here he took a jump back 100 years, a drop down in pitch (I assume) and period instruments, and showed himself well able to create drama within the confines of the period style.

Handel: Tamerlano - Christopher Turner - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)
Handel: Tamerlano - Christopher Turner - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)

His Bajazet developed from belligerence to powerful intensity. He was unusually sympathetic, we might not like him but we could understand. Turner was adept at moving is big voice in a stylish manner, by turns thrilling and intimate, and we understood his love for his daughter. And it ended with a truly remarkable death scene; one of the most astonishing scenes that Handel wrote and sung with remarkably powerful, focused intensity. And I would certainly love to hear him as Handel's Samson.

In the title role, James Laing was a world away from his psychotic Tamerlano in Vivaldi's Il Bajazet with Irish National Opera [see my review]. Here, he moved from the almost flippant to the intensely dramatic when Asteria (Caroline Taylor) thwarts him and Andronico (Thalie Knights) finally admits that he is Tamerlano's rival for her affections. Yet throughout, Laing gave us a sense of the constant and unpredictable danger lurking underneath. In the opera, Tamerlano's music is surprisingly non-psychotic, and Laing made sense of this, giving dramatic shape to the character and dazzling us with some vivid coloratura and vivid, yet stylish, ornaments.

Technically, Andronico is the star of the opera. The role was written for star castrato Senesino (the title role was sung by the more junior Andrea Pacini and he got four arias to Senesino's six), and at the end he gets the girl. But, Oh, he is such a drip. None of the drama would happen if only he said something to Tamerlano in the first act. But Thalie Knights definitely wasn't a drip; she had a way of being solid and centred on stage which, in the opening scenes, brought out the more positive aspects of Andronico's character. And Knights combined this with a beautifully well-modulated vocal line. Andronico might be rather passive, particularly in the first half of the opera, but Knights and Kyropoulos made him a far more positive presence, vividly portrayed. The character might not get the triumphal final aria that Handel allots Bertarido in Rodelinda (another drip), but Knights and Caroline Taylor took full advantage of Andronico and Asteria's gorgeous duet.

Handel: Tamerlano - Caroline Taylor, Leila Zanette  - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)
Handel: Tamerlano - Caroline Taylor, Leila Zanette  - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)

As Asteria, Caroline Taylor began demure and butter-wouldn't-melt, helped by her stylish yet very conventional frock. But Taylor also found another vein; this Asteria had spitfire moments and was clearly her father's daughter. Taylor brought highly expressive facial expressions and body language to the Throne Room Scene, making Asteria a very active participant even when saying little, and at the end of the scene Taylor was profoundly moving when Asteria addresses Bajazet, Andronico and Irene in turn, then ends the act with her powerful aria.

It was a real shame we did not get Asteria's aria 'Cor di padre' in Act Three (yes, I know it holds things up but I would have loved to hear Taylor singing it). At the end, Taylor did not sing in the finale coro, instead she took part in a funeral processions for Bajazet which crossed the rear of the stage, an imaginative and moving touch.

Irene can seem something of an after thought; certainly Irene in Handel's Tamerlano is a world away from the avenging fury of the character in Vivaldi's opera. Here, Leila Zanette made the more of each of Irene's three arias, making each wonderfully vivid and the character seem far more an active participant in the drama. At times Zanette was positively thrilling and stylish too, both vocally and in the way she carried her 1930s frock.

Jolyon Loy was a remarkably camp Leone, bringing a sense of vividness to a character to who is marginal to the drama. Whilst it would have been nice to hear Loy singing Leone's aria, in fact it is rather dramatically redundant and perfectly understandable that it was omitted. The company also included three hard-working actors in non-speaking roles, Victoria Adler, Floki Carlsen and Johan Ribbing, and besides appearing on stage, both Carlsen and Ribbing assisted the stage director whilst Adler also helped with wardrobe.

Handel: Tamerlano - Caroline Taylor, Thalie Knights - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)
Handel: Tamerlano - Caroline Taylor, Thalie Knights - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)

In the pit, the orchestra combined six members of Julian Perkins' ensemble Sounds Baroque with students from a variety of conservatoires including members of CHOC Talent Development Programme. They sat in historical formation, first violins, oboes and bassoon in a line facing the stage, the others in a line facing them with the two harpsichords in between (Julian Perkins directed from the harpsichord). A couple of moments of ensemble apart, the results were engaging and convincing. The 23 players made a very full, rich sound and under Perkins' direction gave us a very active counterpart to the stage action. And we even got the two period clarinets in Irene's Act Two aria.

The opera was sung in English, and whilst not every word was understandable, plenty came over and it was heartening to hear how music, drama and text came together, particularly in the recitatives. The opera was cut, but Kyropoulos had done so sympathetically and we never felt short changed. After all there was still around three hours of music.

Handel: Tamerlano - James Laing - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)
Handel: Tamerlano - James Laing - Cambridge Handel Opera Company (Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet)

We caught the final performance of the production's short run, coming at the end of what must have been a particularly intense week for the performers, encompassing four performances and a dress rehearsal in six days. The venue, the Great Hall at the Leys, proved to be a gem of a modern theatre; built in 2012/13 it is a traditional horse-shoe shape with a compact auditorium providing the right sized space for this type of production.

This was not a psychological production in the sense Freud might have understood it. Instead, Dionysios Kyropoulos combined 18th century stagecraft with modern sensibility to create a very active drama that was wonderfully engrossing, with some damned fine singing and playing.

In the afternoon, we had a fascinating study session on the opera. Prof David Kimbell sketched in some of the background to the opera, the libretto and Handel's relationships, whilst Prof Reinhard Strohm gave superb insight into the changing way Tamerlano (Tamburlaine, Timur Leng) and Bajazet were perceived, both as historical characters and as avatars for more modern figures like King William III and King Louis XIV. In fact, continuing popularity of Nicholas Rowe's play Tamburlaine made you wonder about the choice of the subject for Handel's opera, even though his treatment of the characters is very different. Handel's extensive revisions to the opera before the first performance led to cuts and deletions, and we heard three excised numbers; two of which were probably the first UK performances!

Mezzo-soprano Lydia Haynes (doing double duty as Irene and Andronico) and counter-tenor Eliran Kadussi (as Tamerlano) sang two duets from Handel's original ending, whilst soprano Avalon Summerfield gave us Asteria's lovely Cor di Padre, all three accompanied by Julian Perkins (piano). And having interviewed Dionysios Kyropoulos recently, it was lovely to hear him talk of his approach to historical stagecraft and actually demonstrate the techniques he was talking about.

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