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Review of Handel's Tamerlano

6 April 2022

Countertenor James Laing is making a speciality of Tamerlano – the historical Timur and the Tamburlaine of Christopher Marlowe’s play. He portrayed the Tartar conqueror in Vivaldi’s Bajazet at the Royal Opera House in January – now he becomes the title character in Handel’s similarly themed opera. Both operas draw on a libretto by the Venetian Agostino Piovene, but Handel’s is far more frequently performed – justly so, since it counts as one of his greatest stage works. The Cambridge Handel Opera Company has adapted an English translation dating from 1731. There are no surtitles – in the intimate Leys theatre cast members make the words clear and director Dionysios Kyropoulos keeps the motivations and relationships clear.

Played on a black-curtained stage adorned with a lone broken pillar, the action is discreetly updated from about 1400 to circa 1930. Andronico – Tamerlano’s Greek ally, who loves Asteria, daughter of the defeated Ottoman sultan Bajazet – sports splendid gold epaulettes, and the costumes of Tamerlano and his silent henchmen evoke the Caucasus. Whenever Laing – or Christopher Turner as his antagonist and prisoner Bajazet – takes the stage, the Handelian thrill quotient rises. Both are seasoned performers and project their characters strongly in both vocal and physical terms. Tamerlano, mercurial and dangerous, expresses himself virtuosically. Bajazet, intransigent, but noble, is largely defined by his declamation. Unusually for Handel, this tragic hero is a tenor, though this is not a ‘top notes’ role. Turner’s capacity for shaping and colouring a line, and for probing the text, is of the essence.

Asteria is circumscribed, yet ferocious. The lush underlay to Caroline Taylor’s pellucid voice suggests this duality, but, like her character, she never quite goes for the kill. In a role composed for the star 18th-century castrato Senesino, Thalie Knights as Andronico needs to add more flash to her deep, mellow tone and to her stoical demeanour. Leila Zanette – another mezzo-soprano, but brighter of sound – brings elegance and point to Irene, the princess betrothed to Tamerlano. Her confidant Leone is a lounge lizard in co-respondent shoes, and Jolyon Loy sings him with resonance and swagger.

Kyropoulos, professor of historical stagecraft at the Guildhall School, takes a largely naturalistic approach in his staging. Some bolder stylisations might heighten the often brutal drama. Likewise, there could be more edge to the impeccably stylish conducting of Julian Perkins and the refined playing of the period-instrument orchestra.

Still, there is no lack of intensity in the pivotal, near-fatal ensemble scene at the end of Act II – written almost entirely in recitative – and in Bajazet’s death throes, protracted in true operatic fashion, but breathtakingly inventive as music drama.

Yehuda Shapiro

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