Monday 13 June 2022

Baroque mind games: Handel's Tamerlano at The Grange Festival

Handel:Tamerlano - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Handel:Tamerlano - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)

Handel: Tamerlano; Raffaele Pe, Paul Nilon, Sophie Bevan, Patrick Terry, Angharad Lyddon, director: Daniel Slater, conductor: Robert Howarth, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; The Grange Festival
Reviewed 10 June 2022 (★★★

Strong performances and an intelligently modern-dress staging make Handel's darkest operatic drama a gripping evening

Tamerlano is regarded as one of Handel's greatest operas yet productions of it in the UK have been few and far between in recent years, but that has all changed. Cambridge Handel Opera, the Grange Festival and English Touring Opera are all addressing the work, whilst Irish National Opera looked at Vivaldi's take on the same story. Opera seria is such that each production can be somewhat different, taking a different route to addressing the fundamental issues at stake in the opera. 

Whilst Tamerlano does contain two of the greatest dramatic scenes that Handel wrote in his Italian operas, the opera's complex plot essentially boils down to a series of mind games. The work uses that classic opera seria plot where characters are confined in a single space over a short period of time and then we see what happens. Which leaves a lot of scope.

At The Grange Festival, we caught the first night (10 June 2022) of Daniel Slater's new production of Handel's Tamerlano, Robert Howarth conducted the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, with Raffaele Pe as Tamerlano, Paul Nilon as Bajazet, Sophie Bevan as Asteria, Patrick Terry as Andronico, Angharad Lyddon as Irene and Stuart Orme as Leone. Designs were by Robert Innes Hopkins with lighting by Johanna Town.

Handel:Tamerlano - Sophie Bevan, Paul Nilon, Raffaele Pe The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Handel:Tamerlano - Sophie Bevan, Paul Nilon, Raffaele Pe The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)

There was no drop curtain, the opera opened in a foyer, entrances left and right with a grill across the back. Only the Islamic styling of the grill's ornament and a notice in Cyrillic script hinted at the location. During the overture a guard, in modern dress, appeared and opened the grill, using a keypad, to release Bajazet (Paul Nilon). This was a modern dress Tamerlano, but preserving the Middle-Eastern location so that Bajazet's references to Ottoman blood continued to make sense. Robert Innes Hopkins' inventive set might be described as brutalist bling, a gilded bunker, a palace suitable for a Middle-Eastern tyrant. 

But the set also referenced the traditional Baroque set, a series of bays receding to an alcove at the back, with a series of screens across (the grill in the opening scene being the first of four or five), and during the first two acts the screens were gradually opened so that the physical space echoed the dramaturgy of the opera in that the whole built towards the throne room scene, the first time that we saw the whole stage. For Act Three, things were more abstract but still with plenty of bling for the banquet scene.

Though this was a production with plenty of modern detailing - business with a security scanner for the entrance of Irene (Angharad Lyddon), a boxing match for Andronico (Patrick Terry) and Tamerlano (Raffaele Pe) - there was also a strong sense of the work's original dramaturgy. The throne room scene had Pe's Tamerlano put his foot on the prostrate body of Nilon's Bajazet at the foot of the throne. The banquet scene included a real banquet where the precision table laying and Tamerlano's determination to continue the banquet served to highlight the way life continued despite Bajazet, Asteria and Andronico's sufferings. And even the way Pe's Tamerlano and Lyddon's Irene ate shed light on character.

More importantly, the throne room scene (the lonest sequence of recitative that Handel wrote) was simply gripping theatre, holding you until the glorious ending. For much of the first half (Acts One and Two without an interval) the opera might have been called Andronico. That role was written for star castrato Senesino and received a series of wide ranging arias, here finely sung by Patrick Terry. But from the first notes of the throne room scene, Nilon's Bajazet took command, and rightly Paul Nilon drove the drama through to the end.

Tamerlano is an odd character. Handel's music for him hardly provides opportunities for the sort of viciousness that the role in Vivaldi's Bajazet (an alternative take on the same plot) does. Raffaele Pe brilliantly brought out the changeability of Tamerlano's behaviour, he could turn on a pin from jovial to angry, and it was clear that everyone around him lived on a knife edge. This Tamerlano was suitably unnerving, and Pe's way with the series of virtuoso arias contributed to this feeling. Pe could rattle away with the bravura passagework in a manner that was both dazzling and threatening. At the end, Tamerlano's change of heart became simply another of his mood swings and it was clear that nothing had changed.

Andronico is undoubtedly a bit of a drip with his constant havering. Patrick Terry, looking slightly nerdish in horn-rim spectacles, made Andronico seem to be a wannabe Tamerlano, except he lacked the essential courage. His progress was simply a series of iterations between pleasing Tamerlano and Asteria. Terry's singing was very fine indeed so that arias, so as the one concluding Act One, were technically beautiful yet they also gave an emotional heart to the role.

Bajazet requires a very special sort of tenor, one happy with the style of opera seria but who has the power and strength the role needs. Paul Nilon had this in spades [we saw him previously in the role in Buxton in 2016, see my review]. He created a character who, though unbending, had a certain nobility too. There was something admirable about his single-mindedness and a thrilling element to Nilon's singing. The throne room scene's gripping drama continue through Act Three and the spectacular death scene, in the context of Tamerlano's banquet, was thrilling theatre given an emotional heart here by Nilon's powerful performance.

Sophie Bevan's Asteria was very much her father's daughter. No soubrette she, instead a strong-minded woman with Bevan giving us a series of powerful and expressive arias of which Act Three's 'Cor di padre' was perhaps the highlight. Bevan was a very physically expressive performer too, and ensured that the opera held all the lead characters in the right balance.

Angharad Lyddon's Irene was just as strong minded as the others. Using glamour and appearance as one of her weapons, she was completely focused on her putative role as Tamerlano's wife. This was no love-match, but a meeting of powerful minds. Lyddon has a lovely rich mezzo-soprano voice with plenty of strength and character in the lower register, used to great effect here. Stuart Orme's Leone proved a characterful for her, with a suggestion of a more intimate relationship with Irene, though Orme was deprived of his aria.

Five actors, Alex Comana, Molly Moody, Korey J Ryan, Holly Sonabend and Ray Strasser-King, had significant roles in the drama playing guards and servants, many of whom were complicit in Tamerlano's mind games.

In the pit, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Robert Howarth's direction performed with great style allied to richness of tone. The sound-quality was expressively full yet still with that litheness and articulation needed for Baroque music. Howard directed from the harpsichord with Jonathan Darbourne (assistant conductor and repetiteur) on second harpsichord, Paula Chateauneuf on theorbo  and Jesper Svedberg on continuo cello. Throughout the evening, playing was a very high level and constantly engaged and enjoyable.

Inevitably the opera was cut, but we heard plenty of music and a satisfying drama. There was a lot of recitative, swiftly and dramatically delivered.  Having an Italian in the title role probably helped and certainly  it was noticeable the way Raffaele Pe bent the text for expressive purposes. The others followed suit and I have rarely enjoyed the recitative in Tamerlano so much,

Handel:Tamerlano - Angharad Lyddon, Sophie Bevan - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Handel:Tamerlano - Angharad Lyddon, Sophie Bevan - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Annand)

This was a show which managed to make Handel's dark drama accessible and approachable to a general audience without a hint of dumbing down. Thanks to some intelligent ideas in the staging staging and strong performances, this was a gripping evening.

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