Friday, 15 July 2016

Review of Tamerlano, Buxton Festival

TAMERLANO, Buxton Festival, Buxton Opera House

Handel’s Tamerlano, in a co-production by Buxton Festival and The English Concert, is the best of the festival’s operas this year.

It’s been criticised for its dramaturgy, in Francis Matthews’ production, but I think that criticism is misplaced. Granted it is one of Handel’s most intimate operas, all set in a claustrophobic inner sanctum of the evil warlord who gives the opera its name – the Royal Northern College of Music did it as a studio production some years ago and that worked superbly – but the intimacy is preserved here, and the single-set, multi-period presentation (design by Adrian Linford) serves it well. We should be used to such things by now.

A set including furniture and decorations that could have been assembled from a quick scour of Buxton’s bric-a-brac stalls is nothing to be ashamed of: I expect the Tamburlaine of Handel and Haym’s imagination would have tastelessly looted the spoils of his conquered territories to take home in a very similar way.

Maybe the opening tableau showing Tamerlano the Tartar conquering the Turkish sultan Bajazet during the second part of the overture was a bit superfluous (just read the programme notes), but it was soon forgotten. I did wonder why the captive was housed inside a telephone booth, but that, too, quickly drifted into amnesis.

The opera is surprisingly close to modern concepts in its presentation of the conqueror as a hideously inhumane monster (and the Turk as a man of honour), and merciless, capricious manipulation of those within the ambit of power rings many bells with us. Rupert Enticknap, as Tamerlano, was completely up to the vocal demands of the high voice role, though it can also be a gift for an actor who exploits the freakiness of it to emphasize its moral monstrousness.

But the three heroic characters – Paul Nilon as Bajazet, Marie Lys as his daughter, Asteria, and Owen Willetts as Andronico, who loves her – were wonderfully acted and sung.

I wasn’t sure at first about Paul Nilon’s timbre for music of this period, but his sheer stage presence and passion won me over, and he had the stamina, too, saving his best singing for the end, with a moving Figlia mia.

Marie Lys proved herself a singer of impressive range and real passion from the start, and found the dimension of feistiness in her role as noble daughter – the father-daughter relationship is one that’s rarely explored with such truthfulness and emotional power in opera of this period, and she and Nilon caught it well.

Owen Willetts is a magnificent counter-tenor, and reached real heights of expressive technical power in No, che del tuo gran cor. I particularly enjoyed his Più d’una tigre altero, and the duet with Asteria, Vivo in te, was glorious (even in its joint cadenza).

Catherine Hopper, as the scheming Irene who finally gets the throne she wanted, sang with warmth and command, and Robert Davies (Leone, the noble courtier) brought a lovely rich baritone (his Nel mondo e nell’abisso an early highlight).

A feature of the production is a limited amount of stylish movement, and one expression of masked dumb-show, which I take to be provided to capture something of the staging style of the opera’s original period. It was well executed, even if Tamerlano appears at the beginning to be doing his tai chi as he gets up in the morning.

The music, under the direction of Laurence Cummings with The English Concert orchestra in the pit, is done with real distinction – and the singers give us enough authentic-style display to spark interest and vary the da capo repeats (and in Asteria and Andronico’s case, to climax a love scene), but without pedantic fussiness. That’s a plus point indeed.


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