Skip to content


by on 1 July 2022

O Tempora, O Mores


by George Frederic Handel, libretto by Nicola Francesco Hyam 

The Grange Festival, The Grange, Northington until 3rd July

Review by Mark Aspen

Power and its corruption … absolute power and its tyranny.  These are themes that strike a tragically topical note.  Muslim against Muslim … sects of Islam at war with each other.  Yes, very 21st Century.  Yet these are the subjects of Handel’s opera seria, Tamerlano, set in what we now call the Middle East … but in 1402.

The Tartar Sultan Timur (Tamerlano in Italian) had spent over thirty years waging jihads against fellow Muslim rulers whom he considered not to be keeping the faith, but in truth merely an excuse to build an Empire to rival that of the Moghuls that had collapsed some half-century earlier.  The Ottoman Sultan Bayezid (Bajazet in Handel’s opera) was a hugely successful Turkish military leader, whose battle honours gained him the sobriquet “The Thunderbolt”.  In July 1402, their two armies, each of over 100,000 men, squared up to each other on a battlefield near Ankara.  However, by bribery and general skulduggery, Timur had caused whole regiments of Bayezid’s men to defect to his side.  Timur prevailed and Bayezid was taken captive to Timur’s court in Bursa.

Thus the history, but the manner in which Bayezid was treated is subject to varied speculation.  This period is best known via Christopher Marlowe’s 1587 two part epic play, Tamburlaine the Great.  With fifty named characters, it paints a big bloodthirsty picture of gory glory.  Handel’s Tamerlano is steeped in other atrocities but draws a more redemptive conclusion.  Handel’s picture is sombre and more restrained, more subtle and develops the characters.  With his librettist Nicola Francesco Hyam, Handel based Tamerlano on an earlier libretto by Agostino Piovene (which Vivaldi was later to use in his own Bajazet).   Tamerlano was written in the early summer of 1724, a prolific year for Handel, which also saw the composition of Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda.

Handel’s plot is solely concerned with Bajazet’s captivity.  Tamerlano has also taken Asteria, Bajazet’s daughter captive, and holds another conquered foe, the Byzantine Greek prince Andronico under house arrest and in his service.  Each is planning release from the dilemma of their demeaning situations.  Each plan separately and all are at cross-purposes.  Irene, a royal princess from Anatolia, and Tamerlano’s erstwhile fiancée arrives to throw a spanner in the works of everyone’s plans.   Meanwhile, Tamerlano, who holds all the cards, mocks and taunts them.

Handel’s’ score is sober, yet sublime; agile yet ardent, but above all is dramatically inspired in its penetrating portrayal of the agony of the action.  This is music as a panegyric of the Baroque.

The Grange Festival is a temple of Baroque opera.  Its Artistic Director, the internationally renowned opera singer Michael Chance is a countertenor, a voice whose seedbed was in the Baroque.  The Grange Festival excels in this genre, which is an annual staple of the Festival.  This is its third Handel opera, after Belshazzar in 2019 and Agrippina in 2018.  The inaugural offering in 2017 was Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in PatriaTamerlano is no less of a triumph and scores for the Festival on all counts.

There is no open air inTamerlano; everything happens in a claustrophobic indoors, no matter how grand.  It is about captivity and this is plain in Robert Innes Hopkins’ war bunker of a palace, which includes a massive concrete lattice ceiling, which hovers threateningly above most of the scenes.  There is something Escher-esque about the set, architecture trapped in itself.  The heavy lattice begrudgingly lets in a stifled light, for this is a palace without windows. 

First off, we enter the prison where Bajazet is confined, the Russian signage on the rough concrete wall reads “Подвал-5”; that is it is at the fifth level under the ground, a dungeon from which there can be no flight.   But, hold on, the black-clad guards in this prison palace are US boot-camp heavies, with baseball caps, shades and Doc Martens.  Yet, beyond the cage that confines the vanquished sultan, is the women’s prison-within-a-prison-within-a-palace, behind an Islamic fretwork.   Tyranny can exist worldwide is the message.

The arch tyrant here though is the eponymous Tamerlano, portrayed as a twisted little shit.  As a toddler, he probably got sadistic pleasure in ripping off insects’ wings.  Now he is the brattish pop or football star, with a tasteless love of bling.  Nevertheless, here is the astute military leader, who by dint of personality has risen from a shepherd boy to monarch of huge tracts of Asia, with a cautiously respectful following.  He is a complex and charismatic character, an unnerving presence in whose company you tread on eggshells. 

Internationally renowned countertenor Raffaele Pe excels in this title role.  (He played Nerone, a temperamentally similar character, in The Grange Festival’s Agrippina.)  Pe paints a picture of Tamerlano as a dangerously unhinged psychopath, his knife-edge moods switching in a moment from light-hearted conviviality to murderous rage.  Pe not only brings his Italian fire to the acting, but his singing is outstanding, rippling notes effortlessly in a virtuosity that glitters.  Portraying a character beside himself with rage, in the aria A dispetto d’un volto ingrato più sdegnato già s’agita il cor (The malice of your unthankful face raises the turmoil in my heart) Pe is astounding.  The fireworks, the ire, the veiled threats are there, delivered with an acrobatic virtuosity that is jaw-dropping. 

The main target of Tamerlano’s anger is Asteria, who twice attempts to assassinate him, but only serves to fire up his lust to have her as his Queen.  His wooing involves abuse and humiliation, not the best way to win a lady, one might think, and hardly the basis for a marriage.  Celebrated soprano Sophie Bevan’s Asteria is a stark contrast to her captor, a grounded and determined princess, strongly resolved on revenge.  The clear precision of her lyric delivery rings with an expressive eloquence (notwithstanding a front-of curtain announcement that she would mark her performance due to a touch of laryngitis). 

Her spotlight aria Cor di padre e cor d’amante (Heart of a father and heart of a lover) when Asteria is forced by Tamerlano to choose between giving poison to her father or to Andronico, her lover, is heart rending, as she enhances the angular rhythms of Handel’s musical shadowing of Asteria being torn from one to another.

Bevan also shines in her duet with Andronico, her Deh! Lasciatemi … (Oh, leave me …) when Asteria movingly declares her feelings for him have not changed in spite of Andronico’s seeming betrayal in acting as Tamerlano’s go-between.   Jette Park Artist, American countertenor Patrick Terry as the compromised and conflicted Prince Andronico forms a contemplative foil to Pe’s acrobatic Tamerlano, his sensitive introspection musically reflecting the circumspection of the pragmatic Andronico manoeuvring deference and ill-placed bribes.  His plaintive Bella Asteria, il tuo cor mi difenda … (Beautiful Asteria, may your heart protect me …) is achingly touching.

Established as a consummate lyric tenor, Paul Nilon makes a dignified and heroically noble Bajazet stubbornly defiant in the face of overwhelming odds, a man of integrity and principle.   Nilon skilfully builds the growing passion of his frustrated hatred with increasing intensity, exploding with indignation at Tamerlano’s threatened ultimate humiliation, to have Asteria thrown amongst his most violent prisoners for them to defile.  Yet here is a man conscious of own fragility, in Nilon’s nuanced portrayal.  It is a performance reminiscent of his Ulisse in The Grange Festival’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria.  Nilon’s aria cursing of Tamerlano as Bajazet lies dying, Empio, per farti Guerra … (Evil one, to make war on you …) as he vows to return from the grave, is powerfully possessing.

We have become used to seeing mezzo-soprano Angharad Lyddon in light bubbly roles such as Julia in Mansfield Park or Olga in Eugene Onegin, but here as Princess Irene, the ultimate femme-fatale, she is riveting.   Totally unscrupulous and amoral, Irene knows how to make an entrance.  Glamourous power-dressing is used as a weapon in her single-minded goal, to become Tamerlano’s Empress.  Lyddon’s mezzo is velvety rich, strong and vibrant, particularly at the contralto end of the register.

Princess Irene’s entrance has impact, enhanced by her power-dressing: furs, tight leather skirt, animal skin stockings, and Louboutin high-heels with glossy starlet lacquered outsoles.  Clearly, the Devil wears Prada.  Indeed, all the protagonists’ personality are writ large by their costumes, Hopkins’ designs interpreted in Josie Thomas’ wardrobe realisations.  Tamerlano has lamé, bling and attitude.  Bajazet is sober white shirt and braces.   Andronico is pressed and preppy linen. 

Settings equally speak of personality.  Tamerlano’s palace in the tyrant’s own quarters has gilded Louie furniture and more bling, while the walls are expensively polished grey concrete.   It is place with ambiguities.  What does the courtier Leone do?  Seemingly, he runs with the hares and hunts with the hounds, and there are hints of some intimacy with Princess Irene.  In the role of Leone, Stuart Orme’s luxuriant bass voice gives welcome counterweight to the musical landscape. 

Robert Howarth energetically conducts the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra from the harpsichord with style and well steered pacing.  Tamerlano is a work in which the music is very much part of the action, with recitativo accompagnato passages and much dramatic comment.  Paula Chateauneuf on theorbo is the most obviously Baroque element, but the clipped brightness of the genre is faultlessly produced by the whole orchestra.

Director Daniel Slater successfully creates the atmosphere of Tamerlano, its threatening foreboding feel and claustrophobic presence.  The mood of entrapment and inevitability is there too.  The piece is however leavened by injections of humour.  This works best with Pe’s Tamerlano and his sinisterly quizzical teasing that elicits a dare-I-laugh response.  The sparring match between Tamerlano and Andronico, however, suggests a more equal relationship that is totally belied by the reality of Andronico’s subservient position. 

The synchronised silver service in slo-mo as the table is laid for the banquet scene is fun, but risks being a distraction, as does the airport security scanner at the arrival of Irene, which does distract from an important plot detail when Andronico advises Irene to disguise herself as a lady-in-waiting.  Moreover, the ubiquitous presence of Tamerlano’s minders frequently pulls the focus, most notably in the mock execution scene, where the intensity of the love duet, Vivo in te, mio caro bene (Live in me, my dearest love), between Asteria and Andonico is lost.

There is an unnerving opulence about the final banqueting scene, which could be from a Peter Greenaway film or a Caravaggio painting.   Here Tamerlano entertains his reluctant guests and heartlessly humiliates them.  He is saved from an attempted poisoning by the intervention of Irene, but Bajazet takes his own life.  This is where the Hyam-Handel plot becomes improbable, in that Tamerlano, moved by Bajazet’s death, uncharacteristically does a U-turn and pardons Asteria and Andronico, allowing them to marry, while he will marry Irene.  In this production, with Asteria on the floor cradling the still warm corpse of her father, the guest go insouciantly back to the banqueting table … for their pud.

Still, it is 1402 and maybe these things happened then.  It could never happen now … or could it?

Mark Aspen, June 2022

Photography by Simon Annand

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: