Handel’s Tamerlano at the Buxton Festival

From every perspective, Handel’s Tamerlano at the Buxton Festival is a first-rate affair. Musically it benefits from the presence of Laurence Cummings and The English Concert, highly regarded specialists in this repertory. They forced attention on the orchestral accompaniments not only to the fizzy showpiece arias and the slower, languorous passages, but also to the brilliant dramatic recitativo passages, notably in the final act as Bajazet prepares to die. All the soloists were impressive. Marie Lys, hardly out of college, has just the right soprano voice for Handel – pure tone, but with sufficient colour to communicate emotion as well as flexibility for the leaps and runs. Dramatically she offered a convincing characterisation of Asteria, combining irony with passion and defiance. As her lover Andronico, Owen Willetts was less imposing in terms of stage presence but he has one of the most beautiful counter tenor voices around, with a remarkable warmth in the lower register; and his two principal arias were perhaps the vocal highlights of the evening. In my book, Travels with my Opera Glasses, I described tenor Paul Nilon as my “unsung hero”. Time and time again over the years, he has given committed, often stirring, performances which grab one, both dramatically and musically, and his Bajazet was no exception, even though the Handelian idiom does not suit him entirely. The production by Francis Matthews, which blended well into Adrian Linton’s set replete with trophies of war, was not the least of the pleasures to be had from this performance. The director achieved exactly the right balance between static declamation and stage movement and between realism and stylisation, avoiding too much fussy business on the stage. There were touches of humour to relieve the intensity of the proceedings, and some thought-provoking insights into tyranny and its consequences. I particularly liked the final tableau in which, though all sing of reaching peace and calm through love, it is clear that they do not believe it.