What makes Tamerlano such a special opera is its characters. While so many 18th-century operas were to feature stock characters and predictable plots, librettist Nicola Francesco Haym gives us five characters who are anything but: the conqueror Tamerlano who believes himself to be noble and benevolent but has omitted to check whether anyone else likes his plan; the imprisoned Sultan Bajazet who is so furious at having been defeated by a former goatherd that he will accept any disaster rather than take any gift from him; Andronico who tries to play both sides and utterly fails in the attempt; Irene who disguises herself as her own servant to (successfully) achieve her own ends; Asteria who is noble, beautiful, brave but whose plans are destroyed because she fails to tell her allies of her intentions.

Rodrigo Sosa dal Pozzo (Tamerlano) and James Hall (Andronico)
© Richard Hubert Smith

For this third opera in their Handel festival this autumn, English Touring Opera have assembled an excellent cast of singers. Rodrigo Sosa Dal Pozzo gave us a dazzling display of Handelian countertenor singing, managing those dizzying semiquaver melismas with power and accuracy. Ellie Laugharne’s Asteria was immensely appealing. Her voice was full of warmth and lilt with a touch of glitter at the top, alternating strength and vulnerability with equal conviction. The scheming pair of James Hall as Andronico and April Koyejo-Audiger as Irene both sang with conviction and accuracy individually and combined particularly well in duet. In the pivotal role of Bajazet, Jorge Navarro Colorado was a fraction underpowered at the low end of his range but put as much emotion into his words as anyone and, indeed, the outstanding feature of this cast is the intensity of feeling with which all five imbued the text. All five also gave clear Italian diction, which was just as well since the surtitles were far too sparse, giving us no more than a flavour of what was being said rather than allowing us to follow it line for line.

Jorge Navarro Colorado (Bajazet)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Equally outstanding were Jonathan Peter Kenny and The Old Street Band. The orchestral accompaniment and continuo gave bite, verve and propulsion to the score in the faster passages, allowing instrumental colours to shine in the slower ones. Kenny is a Handel singer and it showed in the impeccable balance between orchestra and voices and the energy put into the accompaniment of recitatives, which never faltered.

Rebecca van Beeck’s designs are easy on the eye, at least if you like a darkened palette. The costumes, set in an indeterminate epoch, delineate each character well. The set is a steel framework on which characters occasionally climb to make entrances and exits. Abstractly painted panels provide visual interest, sparse furniture gives shape to the spaces on stage, and a phone-box shaped cage tells of Bajazet’s confinement.

Ellie Laugharne (Asteria)
© Richard Hubert Smith

While it’s all good to look at and none of it gets in the way of the story, director James Conway doesn’t really get much in the way of physical acting in his new production. To be fair, the absence of a chorus from this opera makes it hard to impart realism to situations in which, in real life, the protagonists would be surrounded by throngs of guards and courtiers. But even taking that into account, there was relatively little stage movement and when there was, I struggled to see any great connection between that movement and the events being depicted. The overall effect was that of watching a very attractively painted concert performance.

April Koyejo-Audiger (Irene), Rodrigo Sosa dal Pozzo (Tamerlano), Jorge Navarro Colorado (Bajazet)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The task that remained to the cast, therefore, was to colour events and characters with their voices, a task which they accomplished magnificently. I lost count of the number of wow moments where a vocal line or some piece of counterpoint or harmony took my breath away, not least at the end of the opera. Where other operas might have a grand ensemble piece to celebrate the sovereign’s (and, by implication, their patron’s) magnanimity, Tamerlano ends in a meditative appeal for light and fate to shine on a new day and new love, a moment of sheer beauty to send us thoughtfully into the night.