Handel's darkest opera?

April 2022Programme notes

Julian Perkins conducted an acclaimed series of staged performances of Handel’s Tamerlano for Cambridge Handel Opera in April 2022. The production featured on BBC Radio 3's Early Music Show and was described by Lark Reviews as 'a triumphant vindication of Handel the musical dramatist', while Julian Perkins was praised by The Stage for his 'impeccably stylish conducting'. The cast included countertenor James Laing in the title role and tenor Christopher Turner as the fallen emperor, Bajazet. Below Julian shares some thoughts about this epic masterpiece.

Handel’s Tamerlano is a psychological drama exploring extremes of human nature in the clash of two Titans. Is Tamerlano, who has triumphed over Bajazet, a magnanimous victor or a tyrant? Is Bajazet a protective father whose love for his daughter Asteria shows him as a noble martyr, or is he an emperor whose intractable pride prevents him from acting rationally? Is Asteria a woman of faultless constancy or merely the weak daughter of an intransigent father? And is Asteria’s lover, Andronico, a man of heroic integrity or a wimp?

The opera is true to life, which is seldom clearly black and white. Contradictions abound. Bajazet’s opening aria, ‘Forte e lieto a morte andrei’ (‘‘Steadfast and joyful were my dying’’), exudes confidence with an opening downward leap on his first word, syllabic setting of the text and a pulsating bass line. But after just a few bars uncertainties creep in, with a wandering and angular vocal line on the word ‘celassi’ (‘‘heard’’) in which a veiled colour momentarily casts its shadow over the bright music. A confident veneer perhaps, but nothing when compared to the cocksure triumphalism of Tamerlano, where we experience a kind of ‘repetitive hearing injury’ in his first aria. ‘Vuò dar pace a un’alma altera’ (‘‘To the man who would disdain me’’) features nine downbeat repetitions of one strong chord before the harmony starts moving – only for this pattern to be repeated on his first vocal entry! But consider this alongside Tamerlano’s next aria, Dammi pace’ (‘‘Give me peace’’), in which swagger is replaced by supplication with an undulating opening theme that leads to five unstable, offbeat reiterations in the bass.

Creative contradictions also abound between the text and the music. Bajazet’s rigid refusal to compromise often creates a duality between the brutality of his words and the heroic quality of his music. His single-mindedness feeds into the very structure of the music. In his desperate quest to preserve his identity, his arias have scant contrast. The orchestral scoring is famously austere: there are no brass instruments, and the novel use of clarinets for Irene’s hoped-for contentment is a rare moment of instrumental warmth.  David Kimbell observes (in Handel on the Stage) that this austerity is matched by the condensed quality of the music, in what he suggests is ‘an aspect of Handel’s tragic vein’. Outbursts of vocal coloratura are rare, often serving to alleviate – or heighten – the almost unbearable tension. 

Elsewhere the manifest contradictions deepen the drama’s poignancy. In Asteria’s opening aria, the warm, lilting quality of a siciliano is offset by her opening vocal line, ‘S’ei non mi vuol amar’ (‘‘If love is dead and cold’’), freezing on the note E. This foreshadows Bajazet’s own short-lived siciliano in his final scene, ‘Figlia mia’ (‘‘Daughter, dear one’’), in which the potential of the vocal line is never fully realised. Handel dramatises the profoundly shocking spectacle of an emperor disintegrating in self-inflicted death with inchoate musical form, as Bajazet vacillates between dry recitative, accompanied recitative and arioso. (Handel similarly shattered expectations of form eight years later, for Orlando’s madness.) The contradictions of the music’s structure underpin the opera’s devastating outcome, in which there is no comforting deus ex machina. The final chorus is a chorale in which, touchingly, Asteria is absent from the stage to grieve for her father in private. Through his death, Bajazet has denied Tamerlano the ultimate victory over his soul.

Bringing this intense human drama to life is akin to multi-dimensional chess. Cambridge Handel Opera is blessed with a proactive team of trustees, ambassadors, volunteers and supporters. Ruth Smith has been tireless in helping me and Dionysios Kyropoulos, our stage director, to untangle some knotty recitatives. Andrew Jones’ input is as ever invaluable, not least in allowing us to base our own translation on the one that he made for the Cambridge Handel Opera Group in 2005. Finally, I offer eternal thanks to my inspiring colleagues: the singers, actors, instrumentalists and production team, whose deep love for this art-form and professional dedication allow this piece to sing.

© Julian Perkins

James Laing as Tamerlano. Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet
Christopher Turner as Bajazet. Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet
Rosemary Taylor and Charlotte Bartley playing period clarinets. Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet
Pause for thought... Julian Perkins with some of his orchestral colleagues. The layout is similar to that of an opera orchestra in the 18th century. Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet
Caroline Taylor as Asteria, Christopher Turner as Bajazet and Thalie Knights as Andronico. Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet
Curtain call with the cast. Photo: Jean-Luc Benazet
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