Handel’s Tamerlano at the Buxton Festival Back

The 2016 Buxton Festival held from 8-24 July offered the choice of five operas. Three of these were fully staged – Beethoven’s Leonore, an early version of Fidelio, Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi and Handel’s Tamerlano. In addition, both Vivaldi’s La Senna Festeggianti and Peter Eötvös’s The Golden Dragon received a single performance, the former in concert. Only able to attend one, the obvious choice for me was Handel. After a glorious morning’s drive through the varied Derbyshire countryside from Nottingham, we arrived in good time for a light lunch before again taking our seats in the small, elegant Buxton Opera House.

This was the fourth time I had seen this opera. The first was in Oxford in 1982, in one of Welsh National Opera’s few disasters in English under the title Tamburlaine, set in a bare white-tied staging and impossible to understand without surtitles. The second was in Drottningholm, Sweden, in a baroque performance that revealed the opera’s true greatness. The third was in the Warden’s Garden in New College, Oxford in 2013 by New Chamber Opera. This was directed by Michael Burden and closely followed the original detailed stage instructions. I gave an overview of Tamerlano’s historical context in my review of Michael Burden’s 2013 production.

The Buxton production was billed as a co-production between Buxton Festival and the English Concert, directed by Francis Matthews and conducted by Laurence Cummings instead of its current Artistic Director Harry Bickett, who usually draws a more incisive sound from this leading baroque ensemble. In a Festival booklet, the director explains his view that Tamerlano is a tyrant who strives to maintain a normal domestic life as a family man and art collector, as did many of the Nazi leaders in Germany. The director perhaps even intended to make this comparison, but I can only report what I saw on the stage.

Although there was much to be enjoyed in the singing and the music, it has to be said that the staging was a complete mess, showing very little feeling for the requirements of baroque opera in general and Handel in particular. The first mistake was to perform this three act opera with the only interval between Act 2 and Act 3, with not even a pause between the first two Acts. This, presumably for the convenience of the House Management, destroyed the overall balance of the three acts, showing no consideration for the audience. Furthermore, the conductor started Act 3 without giving the audience a chance to settle, as if he had a train to catch back to London after the performance. Secondly, the stage was filled with Victorian bric-a-brac surrounding a central pillar, around which wound a spiral staircase (the latest fashion in scenic design), giving the impression of being in a lighthouse. The costumes appeared to have come from a junk shop. The men were attired in tatty black suits, Tamerlano distinguished by a gold-lined dressing gown, except for Bajazet in a shabby beige suit depriving him of the dignity he strives to maintain. Asteria was dressed in a red dress covered by a full-length white over garment and Irene in white trousers with a black smock. A further failure to understand Handelian opera lay in the appointment of a ‘movement director’ whose job seemed to be to provide some completely inappropriate dance steps at points in the action. The singers should be static, conveying their meaning through the text and the music. Half-hearted attempts to send-up the text with patches of misplaced humour were not convincing.

After the interval things improved. As is often the case with directors who try to impose their own agenda, they run out of ideas and let the composer reassert himself. Handel won out in the end!

The singing was good. I pick out particularly recent graduate Marie Lys who was a charming Asteria. Catherine Hopper also impressed in the smaller role of Irene. The principal male roles, written for alto castrato, were played by countertenors Rupert Enticknap (Tamerlano) and Owen Willetts (Andronico), bass Robert Davies as Leone their go-between, and tenor Paul Nilon (Bajazet). The climax of the opera is the suicide of Bajazet by taking poison. In the Drottningholm production he dies sitting in a chair facing the audience – one of the most dramatic scenes I have ever seen in opera; in Oxford he leaves the stage ‘tottering to retire’ as the original instructions require. Here Bajazet takes poison, leaves the stage but returns to die in his daughter’s arms in a moving, dramatic conclusion. Despite the handicap of his costume, Paul Nilon’s interpretation is impressive, particularly in Act 3.

The deficiencies in the production did little to spoil the enjoyment of another day at the Buxton Festival, brief though it had to be. We shall be back next year when the choice is Verdi’s Macbeth, Mozart’s Lucio Silla and Britten Albert Herring.

© Peter Schofield