Tamerlano review – Handel’s darkest opera at the Grange festival

Grange festival, Hampshire
Two superb countertenors enact the love-hate relationship between the emperor and his rival in Daniel Slater’s superbly acted and sung production

An examination of the psychology of power, Tamerlano, first performed in 1724, is one of Handel’s greatest operas, and arguably his darkest. We know its title character better in English as Tamburlaine the Great, the central Asian warlord and emperor, whose life and career were famously dramatised by Christopher Marlowe. Here, as in the play, Tamerlano has overcome the Ottoman empire, but in place of Marlowe’s violent militarist, Handel gives us an unnerving portrait of a sadistic psychopath, playing lethal mind games with his unwanted fiancee, Irene, and also with the deposed Ottoman emperor, Bajazet; the latter’s daughter, Asteria; and Andronico, Asteria’s lover and one of Tamerlano’s unwilling political allies.

Slowly and insidiously accumulating tension, it is a difficult work to get right in the theatre, though Daniel Slater’s new Grange festival staging admirably captures its intensity and sombre ambiguities. Slater hauls the work forward to the present, setting it in a labyrinthine bunker-cum-palace, strikingly designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, where Raffaele Pe’s Tamerlano – charismatic, if deadly, in leather, brocade and bling – toys with the lives and liberties of his prisoners and victims, his manipulations breeding deceit and equivocation in a world in which only Paul Nilon’s morally principled Bajazet values his integrity over his life. Feigning compliance, Sophie Bevan’s Asteria secretly plots murder, while Andronico (Patrick Terry) alternately fawns sycophantically and bribes Tamerlano’s henchmen for the sake of his own and others’ survival. By the end, though, it is apparent that Angharad Lyddon’s proud, calculating Irene will prove more than a match for the man she is determined to control in her turn.

Superby acted and sung … Sophie Bevan as Asteria, Paul Nilon as Bajazet and Raffaele Pe as Tamerlano.
Superby acted and sung … Sophie Bevan as Asteria, Paul Nilon as Bajazet and Raffaele Pe as Tamerlano. Photograph: Simon Annand

For the most part, it is superbly acted and sung, though Bevan took time to get into her stride on opening night after a tentative start. In the later scenes, her lyricism contrasted nicely with Lyddon’s declamatory fire. Nilon, excellent as always, is all noble, uncompromising dignity throughout. However, the evening ultimately belongs to its two countertenors. Pe, an outstanding artist, is tremendous in the title role, fusing recitative, aria and some exacting coloratura into an utterly compelling portrait of a political monster straying beyond self-control. His vocal and dramatic brilliance nicely offset Terry’s more reflective warmth and tonal beauty; the love-hate relationship between the two men is subtly and deftly captured, too. Robert Howarth is the stylish conductor, and there is impeccable playing from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Alcina review – Handel’s enchanting opera glitters with retro glamour
Jane Archibald rises to the challenge as nightclub proprietor Alcina, as this lavish, campy production – with punchy playing by the OAE – transports the action to a 1960s Italian metropolis

Tim Ashley

03, Jul, 2022 @12:02 PM

Article image
Early Opera Company-Curnyn Amadigi review | classical album of the week
There are glorious and nuanced performances in a new recording of this lesser-known Handel opera, courtesy of Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company

Erica Jeal

15, Sep, 2022 @2:28 PM

Article image
Tamerlano | Opera review
Royal Opera House, London
Kurt Streit's performance was the one highlight in an evening of suspect cultural politics and weak singing, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

07, Mar, 2010 @10:00 PM

Article image
Hercules review – Handel’s neglected opera is an extraordinary study in marital jealousy
It was never staged in Handel’s lifetime, and rarely is in ours, yet this concert performance makes an outstanding case for the work’s dramatic qualities

George Hall

05, Mar, 2015 @3:43 PM

Article image
Tamerlano/ Royal Opera; St Matthew Passion/CBSO/Rattle | Classical review

Could Plácido Domingo have made Handel's Tamerlano fly by? We'll never know, writes Fiona Maddocks

Fiona Maddocks

14, Mar, 2010 @12:08 AM

Article image
Susanna review – young artists shine in cluttered Handel staging
Handel’s take on the biblical story of Susanna is well played and well sung in this new production by Isabelle Kettle, though less would have been more

Martin Kettle

08, Mar, 2020 @2:50 PM

Article image
Partenope review – Handel on a night out with beardy bohemians
Despite the culottes and mustachios, ENO’s revival of its 2008 production retains enough substance to back up its arch styling

Erica Jeal

16, Mar, 2017 @11:37 AM

Article image
4/4 review – a powerhouse of a programme from the Royal Opera
A quartet of staged vocal works, including terrific renditions of Handel’s Apollo e Dafne and Britten’s Phaedra, welcomes back live audiences

Tim Ashley

18, Oct, 2020 @1:00 PM

Article image
Semele review – Handel's celestial opera remade as a Technicolor romcom
Annilese Miskimmon’s beautifully sung but sardonic production lends the saga of the gods some of the vividness and surreality of early 60s Hollywood

Tim Ashley

02, Jun, 2017 @11:08 AM

Article image
Oreste review – compelling and revolting; whether it serves Handel is another matter
With its gore, sexual menace and overtones of Beckett, Gerard Jones’s production will divide audiences but succeeds superbly in showcasing its young singers

Tim Ashley

09, Nov, 2016 @1:37 PM