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Review of Handel's Tamerlano

7 April 2022

The Cambridge Handel Opera Company (CHOC) is committed to performing Handel’s entire operatic legacy (as well as music by his contemporaries), and its latest production is Tamerlano (1724), a work signed off (although there were later revisions) after amazingly 20 days only in the making.

Handel was a man of the theatre, as well as a composer, and it’s his distinctive dramatic imagination that makes his music as a whole unique. His operas combine structural balance and superb characterisation with tremendous musical impact.

Tamerlano is a perfect example, and CHOC’s artistic director and eminent keyboardist, Julian Perkins, conducting the truly wonderful Sounds Baroque orchestra from the harpsichord, and accompanied by his uniformly excellent cast, is presenting it currently (April 5-9) at the Leys School Great Hall.

The opera’s story, rather a dark one, which has English, French and Italian sources, explores a range of human emotions and situations, including power, deceit, sexual intrigue, lust, betrayal, misapprehension and loyalty, and creates, via its relatively few (six in number) dramatis personae, complex characterisations where audience response to an individual can never be just a simple one.

Tamerlano, for example, is either a brutal potentate and lustful tyrant, or an even-handed governor. Bajazet is essentially the implacable enemy of Tamerlano, or an intensely loyal and devoted father to Asteria, superbly played here by Caroline Taylor as she portrays a development from a young love-consumed woman to one of determination and action.

James Laing (Tamerlano) and Christopher Turner (Bajazet) evoke perfectly the ambivalent responses we are obliged to make, as also does Thalie Knights (Andronico) caught in the difficult situation of being politically allied to Tamerlano, but, as the lover of Asteria, keeping on terms with Tamerlano’s enemy and his prospective father-in-law, Bajazet.

Irene (Leila Zanette), Tamerlano’s betrothed, is both desirous of world rule and shows her ambition, but is equally sympathetic as a character who understandably feels betrayed as she is manipulated into being the wife of Andronico in place of Tamerlano.

The plot-promoting Leone is convincingly presented by Jolyon Loy who, with his philosophical vision, is a kind of anchor of normality amidst all this chaos and confusion.

Of course the humanity and psychological insight of the operatic narrative is compounded by some of the most thrilling and inventive music ever written. Christopher Turner delivered a bravura performance of the aria If Heaven and Earth to Arms he call and Caroline Taylor was spellbinding in the aria which concludes Act 2, Ah not happy! How at ease? with its beautiful melody and orchestration. Jolyon Loy was impressive, too, with Love makes war.

Tamerlano calls for singers of the highest vocal calibre, and the artists in this production presented among themselves over 20 arias to carry the emotional impetus, demonstrating not only Handel’s gift as a melodist but also their own outstanding individual abilities to reveal it.

An ambitious and large-scale stage presentation such as Tamerlano can only be accomplished by a talented creative team. The informed and overall artistic vision and musicianship of Julian Perkins was ably underpinned throughout by Dionysius Kyropoulos (stage director), and contributory production members who’d stepped in when Covid struck and together ensured the unflagging quality, completeness and striking visuals of a lengthy production.

Julian Perkins has remarked that CHOC has taken almost as a kind of guiding principle Endless Pleasure, a song of Handel’s from Semele. Its first production, Rodelinda, was in 2018.

If the company carries on with its intention, namely to produce a staged Handel opera (of the 40 or so) every two years, and starting more or less from now, in my opinion, and based on its track record so far, this will be just about as close to endless pleasure as it’s possible to get.

John Gilroy

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