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Unbending pride

West Road Concert Hall
04/29/2005 -  and 30 April, 2, 4, 6, 7 May 2005
George Frideric Handel: Tamerlano
Mark Chaundy (Bajazet), Anouschka Lara (Asteria), Lucy Taylor (Andronico), Andrew Radley (Tamerlano), Frances Bourne (Irene), Robert Gildon (Leone)

Andrew Jones (conductor), Richard Gregson (director)

Cambridge Handel Opera Group

Handel's Tamerlano was first performed in 1724 along with Giulio Cesare, which is almost part of the standard repertoire, and Rodelinda, which is getting there, partly because of its prime role for a bel canto diva. It shared a first-run cast with the latter, and the role of Asteria is arguably as good as that of Rodelinda, while the general shape and complexity of the drama are about the same. Tamerlano also has many narrative elements – an arbitrary tyrant in love with a close associate's beloved, a rejected betrothed coming in disguise to get him – in common with Xerxes, which the Cambridge Handel Opera Group performed in 2003 and which has become a fixture at the ENO in Nicholas Hynter's production. But Tamerlano is still performed comparative rarely.

The only recent production, directed by Jonathan Miller a couple of years ago, was underwhelming in spite of an incandescent performance by Thomas Randle as the intractably proud Bajazet. Perhaps it is the narrative arc of his suicide that makes the opera less than attractive, or perhaps it is simply having a tenor role at the centre of things, rare for a Handel opera. Certainly, although the romance between Andronico, Tamerlano's Greek ally, and Asteria, Bajazet's daughter, has a happy ending, and the spurned Irene gets her Tamerlano in the end, the explicitly Stoic ending, which strongly echoes Sophocles' Ajax, is not only a general downer but also moves the focus away from human relationships to an austere moral cosmology. Stoicism is supposed to appeal in times of extreme oppression – perhaps things at present are not as bad as some claim.

The Cambridge Handel Opera Group has produced a Handel opera in odd numbered years since 1985, using mainly young professionals in principal roles and resources from the university for the orchestra and production. The approach has varied with the music and stage directors, as well as, to some extent, the vicissitudes of authenticity in the last twenty years, but recent productions have been comparatively contemporary in style, with enough sense of period in both staging and music to make the piece work on its own terms but with a bit of help for a modern audience in making sense of the drama. In Tamerlano, the Greek men had the chi-rho emblem on their cloaks and were generally couth, although Frances Bourne as Irene seemed to aspire to Amazon status and fall short; the Ottomans, Bajazet and Asteria, wore Turkish dress and were a touch swarthy (though this might have been coincidence, as presumably was Anouschka Lara's non-native English accent) and permanently overwrought; and Tamerlano was a Central Asian hairy beast with a butch moustache and a tendency to bounce off the walls. The set was dark and minimal, essentially four corners of a cage that were moved by supers to suggest different spaces, and a throne for the third act.

The cast was never less than musically competent, but there was somehow a greater sense of general gloom than tragic gloom in the performance. Andrew Radley in the title role – the first counter-tenor in a CHOG production since Jonathan Peter Kenney moved on ten years ago – was alien and slightly ridiculous, but not really frightening. (Buddug Verona James' Xerxes was much scarier two years ago.) Mark Chaundry achieved an all purpose intensity as Bajazet, but it was never clear what his inner struggle was about. Lara as Asteria was a touch squeaky and more jet-set petulant than untamed and passionate. Robert Gildon emoted dutifully as Leone, the Greek gofer-with-an-aria, which he sang pretty well.

The orchestra was well rehearsed and idiomatic.

HE Elsom



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