Monday 1 August 2016

Handel - Tamerlano (Buxton Festival, 2016)

George Frideric Handel - Tamerlano

Buxton Festival, 2016

Laurence Cummings, Francis Matthews, Rupert Enticknap, Paul Nilon, Owen Willetts, Marie Lys, Catherine Hopper, Robert Davies

Buxton Festival - 21 July 2016

The key to making an opera like Handel's Tamerlano transfer successfully to the modern stage is to find an appropriate emotional level that will make the necessary connection. You could probably say the same about any opera really, but it's particularly important for baroque opera. What might have been appropriate nearly 300 years ago might not necessarily be the case now, so there's a difficult balance to judge between fidelity to the original intentions of the work and how it can be best viewed by a modern audience. Director Francis Matthews seems to be aware of the particularities and the peculiarities of Tamerlano and this 2016 Buxton Festival production gets the essence of the work across very well indeed.

So what is the dominant mood or emotional level that the Buxton production pitches for? Well, strangely, it plays Tamerlano as something of a drama of manners. The drama of Tamerlano isn't that different from most baroque opera plots. There's a ruler who wants to marry the lover of his closest friend or ally, not realising or caring about the trouble it is going to cause. Afraid to confront the Emperor's wisdom and authority, the other protagonists whose lives have been turned upside down then embark instead on a series of laments of woe and betrayal before those sentiments start to turn towards feelings of anger and a desire for vengeance.

With a few other complications thrown in to set everyone at cross purposes, that's Tamerlano in a nutshell. Handel however, while he has no option but to adhere largely to the conventions of these emotional plot points, is much less strident about their severity. Which strikes you as unusual, because the dramatic plot seems to be dialled up to 11 here in this particular opera with several regicidal death plots of stabbing and poison, the threat of a political prisoner being executed by beheading, a heartbreaking familial conflict between a father and a daughter that plumbs the agonies of betrayal, and several other political and marital complications thrown into the emotional bouillabaisse.

Handel however, certainly as far as it is applied here in Matthews' direction and supported in the period instrument musical arrangement of Laurence Cummings conducting the English Concert, plays all the emotional turmoil of Tamerlano as a delicate question of manners and etiquette. How should Bajazet, the defeated Turkish Sultan, conduct himself before the Tartar victor? And should Tamerlano treat his prisoner with mercy or justice? Should Andronicus defer to the decrees of the Emperor, even if it means he cannot be with the woman he loves, Asteria, the daughter of Bajazet, who the Emperor himself wants to marry and then execute her father? And where does this leave Irene, who Tamerlano was originally supposed to marry? It's a troubling conundrum and one must be seen to be behaving in the right manner at all costs.

The question of etiquette being the dominant concern here is very much within the libretto of the work itself, with frequent pronouncements and accusations of arrogance, pride and anger blinding people to the correct way of behaving. Much is directed against Tamerlano, but he also sees any challenge to his authority - particularly on the part of his reluctant bride-to-be - as improper and is convinced that the 'superba' (arrogantly proud) Asteria will surely recognise what is the right way to behave in this situation and come around. The emphasis on manners is also brought out in this production by the silent courtiers who do the king's bidding, issuing proclamations to make sure protocol is followed and documenting any infractions of them.

The elegant and gentle expression of Handel's music explores the ambiguous and complicated space between intent and behaviour wonderfully, and this is brought out well in the period instrument performance and the conducting of Laurence Cummings. There's a persistent rhythm but the use of instruments and melody suggest more complex emotional workings and plays on these rather more nuanced positions that aren't quite up to the gravity of the conventional opera seria situations. There is a risk that a modern audience might still find such concern over manners and protocol a bit silly, but the production and playing takes this into account without betraying the intent of the work or turning it into a light comedy.

The position and the performance of Tamerlano and how he is characterised is important in keeping that balance. Wonderfully, the Buxton production employs a countertenor for the role (with a second countertenor for Andronico) and Rupert Enticknap plays the part of the Emperor absolutely perfectly, certainly at least as far as the tone and intentions of this production are concerned. There's an edge of arrogance in his bearing, demanding respect for his position but also wanting to appear fair to his friends and enemies, and be loved. It's amazing how much of that can be fed into Enticknap's little trills and ornamentation - just pushing his self-importance and self-confidence too far.

Other little "dramatic" gestures and mannerisms play upon the overheated pronouncements and the artificiality of how they are presented on the stage. Paul Nilon's Bajazet, for example, really milks the situations for sympathy and anguish, yet this is exactly how the role is devised and how the arias are composed for it. Yet, there's an underlying suggestion in the music that it's the proud act of a defeated man and failed father - again those roles and manners that need to be followed - and by playing it that way (undoubtedly directed to be played that way), largely straight, letting the music tell us more than the words and the gestures do, it allows a modern audience to see beyond the conventions of the opera seria form.

Adrian Linford's set designs are curious and difficult to place in any period. It's not quite a 'Night at the Museum' idea, but it does fit with the overall tone adopted which is to suggest something of  a 21st century view of an 18th century depiction of the 15th century Ottoman empire, again emphasising the artificiality of it all. Aside from the two fine countertenors, Rupert Enticknap as Tamerlano and Owen Willetts as Andronicus, Marie Lys also made a great impression as the "superba" Asteria, a strong character who knows her own mind and always has a plan. She cuts through the hesitancies and uncertainties of the male characters bemoaning their fate and is more in favour of taking direction action, moving everything along as it should.

Links: Buxton Festival