Tamerlano is the third of Handel’s operas to be staged at The Grange Festival’s neo-classical mansion since Michael Chance became artistic director in 2017. Ambition, love and duty may be the stuff of Handelian opera, but this ultimately tragic tale, underpinned by divided loyalties, is a stark, problematic masterpiece, its sombre ending arguably ill-suited to country house consumption. Less frequently performed than Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda, which flank Handel’s historical drama, Tamerlano demands exceptional singing and well-defined characterisations, both of which are mostly realised in this performance. But Daniel Slater’s light directorial touch – enlivened by a bizarre conjunction of an aria with a boxing match and a security booth – only finds dramatic purpose in the supper party of Act 3 where a more involving dynamic between the characters emerges.
If the sets and lighting are darkly confining, at least Robert Innes Hopkins’ low ceilings and Johanna Town’s dimly lit interiors match the tone of the work. There’s some relief from the gloom in the modern-day costumes with combat trousers, brocade jackets and silk dresses, but if there hadn’t been a few cuts (both Leone’s arias and a handful of da capos are filleted) it would have felt like a long evening. Drawing on a libretto by the Venetian Agostino Piovene, and first performed in London’s King’s Theatre in 1724, the meandering plot doesn’t entirely grip until the third act with a moving death scene but an unconvincing act of clemency by the conquering Mongol Tamerlano. This early 15th-century warrior holds captive the proudly deposed Sultan Bajazet and his daughter Asteria, whose proposed marriage to Tamerlano will release her father. But Asteria loves the Greek prince Andronico, an ally to Tamerlano who is assigned to negotiate the nuptials and wed for himself the victor’s discarded mistress Irene. Threats, botched assassination attempts and suicide lead to Tamerlano’s improbable reconciliation with his former lover and a pardon for Asteria’s futile scheming – not necessarily something expected from a tyrannical ruler who sadistically toys with the lives of his prisoners.
In the title role, Italian countertenor Raffaele Pe consistently held the ear and eye, slipping insidiously between dangerous monster and playful oppressor. His well-projected voice effortlessly glided over the stave, reams of brightly spun semiquavers delivered with powerful conviction, none more so than in his rage aria “A dispetto d’un volto ingrate”, the highlight of the evening. No less technically versatile was Patrick Terry’s obsequious Andronico, his portrayal capturing his love/duty dilemma and dispatching plaintive and explosive arias to Sophie Bevan’s limpid Asteria with equal assurance. Bevan struggled with tuning problems on opening night, but by the time she reached her tender duet with Terry she had regained her poise and thereafter produced a winning account, persuading me by the end of her expressive talents. Veteran tenor Paul Nilon, as her father, made for a noble Bajazet, determinedly intransigent with his encounters with Tamerlano, and at his best in his passionate intention to haunt his captor from beyond the grave.
Elsewhere, Angharad Lyddon's ripe contralto commanded attention as the rejected Irene, a woman without scruples, while Stuart Orme’s reliable Leone provided a welcome bass register in several recitatives. In the pit, Robert Howarth drew some gutsy playing from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; arias stylishly shaped, if sometimes a little sturdy. Overall, a hit and miss evening with some remarkable moments.About our star ratings