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Handel's first night thoughts

ROBERT HUGILL was at the
Cambridge Handel Opera Group's 'Tamerlano'


With the steady drift of Handelian opera towards mainstream opera houses, it is becoming increasingly difficult to hear (and see) productions of his operas which have not been filtered through the eyes of a celebrity director or had the score shaped to suit the needs of the production or the views of the musical director. Whilst some of these productions do generate excitement and theatrical interest, once in a while it is a delight to see a production of a Handel opera where the score is presented complete, edited with true academic rigour; and the production respects the libretto and Handel's theatrical intentions.

Such is the case with the Cambridge Handel Opera Group's production of Tamerlano, which was given its final performance at the West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, UK, on Sunday 8 May 2005. The group was formed in 1985 and since then has given one production every two years. It's intentions are quite straightforward, to present Handel's operas in productions which respect his intentions, sung by young professional singers using a straightforward translation into English. The West Road Concert Hall is not a large auditorium so the audience can get something of the intimacy which Handel's audiences must have felt. But where the concert hall differs significantly from Handel's theatres is in the size of its stage. The West Road Concert Hall has a tiny stage, which presents a challenge to director and designer.

The opera was directed by Richard Gregson, who has directed every production since 1993. Conductor Andrew Jones has conducted all of the operas since the group's inception and he made the edition of Tamerlano used for the performance. Unusually, Andrew Jones enabled us to hear the opera exactly as Handel presented it on its first night. Right up to that first performance, Handel was busy with last minute cuts and revisions, so that opera producers can have a field day with mixing and matching different versions of the opera. It was a pleasure to hear Handel's own final thoughts without anyone intervening and saying that we know better.

Designer Cameron Lawrence opted for a very simple stage design, just a stepped black stage, the only stage effect being that the black curtain at the back could be opened to reveal a white wall. This was used to superb effect when at the end of Act 2 it revealed Tamerlano's throne and at the end of Act 3 it created a luminously lit portal through which Bajazet made his final, dying, exit. The stage setting relied solely on some Tartar shields and a group of portable grilles that could be anything from Bajazet's cell to the walls of the harem. The result created a flexible, uncluttered playing area which made a good use of the space available.

Lawrence seems to have spent the majority of his budget on the costumes. Here he imaginatively clarified the character's relationship to each other. The Ottomans Bajazet (Mark Chaundy) and his daughter Asteria (Anouschka Lara) were in white and silver Turkish outfits. The Greek prince Andronico (Lucy Taylor) was in grey tunic, white cloak and armour, his confidant Leone (Robert Gildon) was similarly dressed, but without the armour. Tamerlano himself (Andrew Radley) wore Tartar armour complete with a magnificent fur hat and cloak.

All the members of the cast were relatively young, meaning that we had the delight of young voices together with a certain inexperience in stage-craft. Young singers can require a great deal of help in Handelian opera seria as they have to spend rather a long time doing nothing but looking interesting. Here, director Richard Gregson's production was some help as, whilst not attempting to authentically recreate the gestures of Handel's day he had encouraged the cast to use a repertoire of slightly stylised formal movements which lent the proceedings a stateliness completely different to the heightened naturalism of many modern productions. At times the singers seemed to be slightly constrained, but generally Gregson seems to have created a good framework for the singers to insert themselves in.

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Copyright © 10 May 2005 Robert Hugill, London UK


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