Handel’s Tamerlano gets a contemporary setting in The Grange Festival’s take on the 15th century story of the defeated Ottoman ruler Bajazet who chooses death over submission to the great Mongol conqueror.
It takes rather a long time to get there and when it does is rather sudden, which is all the more surprising when the fast moving second part of the festival opera’s offering has followed the usual long (overlong on a drizzly evening) supper break.
The first part is a catalogue of revolver wielding guard bribery, set piece angst-ridden father-daughter-would be lover meetings in what is a prison cellar presumably beneath the great Tamerlano’s palace.
As the story combines love and loyalty with the rather less charming desires for worldly power, lost empire and status, in the context of military defeat and jockeying for influence, it is clearly seen by director Daniel Slater as relevant to the struggles in that part of the world in the 21st century.
The prison wall has the word “cellar” in Cyrillic and similarly Tamerlano looks more like a ridiculously wealthy Russian oligarch in designer trainers, bling jewellery, fashionably ostentatious trousers and jackets, than a merciless Mongol warlord whose armies have killed, burnt, raped and pillaged their way across Asia and the edges of Europe.
Robert Innes Hopkins’ sets, lit by Johanna Town, convey this tasteless opulence of the palace and which contrats with the bare concrete walls of the prison, where first Paul Nilon’s Bajazet, and then also Sophie Bevan’s Asteria, are kept under (rather ineffective) guard.
Our cruel Tamerlano seems not to understand why anyone would not be happy with his generosity of not only marrying his defeated enemy’s daughter, Sophie Bevan’s Asteria, but also giving an empire to the Greek prince Andronico along with the hand of the princess of Byzantine Trezibond, Irene, and if all agree then releasing Bajazet. Of course, as Andronico and Asteria are in love with one another, and Irene is determined to marry Tamerlano – and Bazajet just wants death or honour – the conqueror of worlds is none too pleased that his plans are thwarted.
With some flexible staging, adroit lighting, and a dramatically and vocally polished cast, the bonkers baroque plot just about stays on the rails, although some touches at humour (an annoying metal detector for example) and the continual bribing of the guard, do jar with the unrelenting darkness of the piece.
Vocally ravishing Raffaele Pe delivers a fabulous Tamerlano, particularly as his anger finally let’s rip, but the drawing of his character comes over at times a petulant/sadistic playboy who is just used to getting his own way. The long suffering Andronico has a staid, some may say a little insipid characterisation rather than heroic drawing for the gentler counter tenor of Patrick Terry. The two men’s complicated relationship is deftly explored with the choreographed play boxing particularly interesting.
More clearly rivals, Sophie Bevan’s technical ability and vocal beauty shone out in a nothing held back passionate delivery of the nuanced role of Asteria while as the conniving and seemingly truly sadistic Irene, who enjoyed her supper watching the sufferings of her would be rival, Angharad Lyddon was fabulous. She sounded and looked glorious with an elegant rich mezzo that oozed manipulation and seduction.
Paul Nilon sang the role of the humiliated Ottoman ruler with an unrelenting dramatic intensity that at times seemed to border on madness, demanding as much sacrifice and suffering from his poor daughter as he did from himself. Stuart Orme brought much to the smaller role of Leone.
Slater’s vision comes into its own after that long supper break when the characters too sit down to a stylised meal with dishes being served as the psychological torture is inflicted with yet more threats (none ever actually carried out) from the frustrated tyrant and his designer heavies. The last course is a splendidly acted suicide by Bajazet and the sudden conversion from the dark side by the more Kardashian than Kalashnikov Tamerlano.
Under the baton of conductor Robert Howarth, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra breathed fire into Handel’s dramatic score, sympathetic accompaniment to the singers, particularly during their arduous solo arias.
Until July 3
Sophie Bevan and Raffaela Pe
Images: Simon Annand