MUSIC; Irresistible in any language

Tamberlane Opera Theatre Company
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The Independent Culture
James Joyce might have imagined it: a touring company taking baroque opera to Ireland's remotest corners. Dublin's Opera Theatre Company (OTC) has something of an international reputation for its seria-on-a-shoestring productions. Last year's staging of Handel's Flavio was the hit of the BOC Covent Garden Festival. This year's visit to St Clement Danes Church with the same composer's Tamerlano (Tamberlane in director James Conway's translation) sold out in days.

The production was announced as "semi-staged." The singers emerged in sober black, processing through the church to a small platform, where seats awaited them. There were music stands but no music: the singers had no need, they knew their parts. They sang as if parodying a concert performance, staring stiffly ahead, refusing the tiniest interaction. Yet little by little the character of the opera invaded each singer in turn.

The first to yield was Tamberlane ( a castrato role sung by Alison Browner). As Tamberlane confesses his love to Louise Walsh's Asteria, Browner, as if buckling under the strain, turns to Walsh and caresses her face. Walsh's impassivity exaggerates the character's rejection, but the impact of Tamberlane's small movements amid such reticence is enormous. Like the singers, we are drawn irresistibly into the drama.

The turning point comes at the end of Act 1. Andronico ascends to the pulpit, where he finds... his costume. In a moment of rage during Act 2, Andronico casts aside the music stands and the transition to drama is complete. The roles inhabit the singers. A nice conceit, handled with subtlety. Conway's production allows no extravagant gesture but treats the rarefied Opera Seria idiom as conversational drama, the restraint emphasising the extremes to which Handel drives his characters. When Mark Padmore's Bajazet, humiliated by Tamberlane, finally kills himself, the emotional temperature is as high as in, say, Madama Butterfly. Perhaps performances like this, succinct, well-sung, expertly played, will one day make Handel as popular as Puccini.

Despite the title, the opera's centre is Andronico, another castrato role, here sung by a counter-tenor, Jonathan Peter Kenny, whose throat infection hardly interfered with his cleanly-projected falsetto. On stage, Kenny has the bearing of a man suffering mightily, but inwardly: perfect for Handel. Alison Browner's Tamberlane was a swaggering, pouty bully; and, after initial edginess, Louise Walsh's Asteria bloomed, bringing the house down with her long Act 2 aria. Lynda Lee's Irene was properly austere, her dignity shaming everyone into good behaviour; and Mark Padmore (a leading tenor, rare in baroque opera) stepped beyond period manners when Bajazet's predicament demanded it. Yet the show's star was the tiny orchestra, a dozen players directed with perfect flexibility by Samus Crimmins. An Italian opera, written by a German composer, for a London audience, performed in English by an Irish company, directed by a Canadian: Opera Seria becomes lingua franca.

Nick Kimberley