It was a risky decision for the Royal Northern College of Music to introduce its pocket-sized new Studio Theatre with a work designed to take advantage of all the lavish visual resources enjoyed in the early 18th century. In the event Handel's Tamerlano is highly successful in a compelling, small-scale production imaginatively lit by Philip L Edwards, the dramatic intensity and incident proving extraordinarily effective in Jennifer Hamilton's sparse setting.
Despite the difficulty, from some angles, of following the surtitles, the 100-seat space offers the type of intimate opera experience that hasn't previously existed in Manchester. With the audience thrust into the midst of the dramatic conflict generated by the clash of wills between conquering and conquered emperors, the tension is sustained throughout. The first act may be slow to build – establishing pre- history and laying the dramatic foundations in da capo arias can seem laboured – but the pace of the second increases so that the third becomes positively incisive, as the Turkish prisoner, the defeated emperor Bajazete (a sterling performance from Alexander Grove), finally frees himself from the tyranny of the Tartar ruler, Tamerlano.
The work provides its singers with some substantial roles, both vocally and theatrically. Pity poor Andronicus, the Greek prince trapped like a pawn, well sung here by Rachel Smith, who has to rely on pretty much one tight-lipped facial expression to express anger, despair, remorse, wrath and sorrow. But the part of Tamerlano is a gift for a counter-tenor of such immense promise as Luke Tye. His ability to catch the character's megalomanic personality to perfection is complemented by a vigorous and stylish musical performance.
In a generally excellent cast, Amy Freston is a suitably touching and vulnerable Asteria, whom Tamerlano fickly decides he'll marry instead of his betrothed, and Wendy Dawn Thompson is splendidly haughty as the ousted princess.
Not only is this the first in-the-round staging at the Royal Northern College of Music, but it also represents the first outing for a student orchestra of period instruments at baroque pitch. Gary Cooper's brisk direction from the harpsichord, while conveying the musical grandeur of the score, is distinguished by his handling of bursts of emotional stress and of other critical moments in the score. His sensitivity to timing and feeling for Handel's textures gives the singers welcome flexibility to convey meaning, as well as encouraging some particularly lovely woodwind playing (the score interestingly featuring clarinets for the first time by Handel).
Future presentations in the Studio Theatre – which must surely be used for dance and drama as well as music and opera – will have a hard act following this gripping inaugural production. As someone who habitually dreads long baroque evenings (and fully expected to sympathise with the early commentator who described Tamerlano as "execrable"), I was amazed how the minutes (all 230 of them) flashed past.
Further performances on 13 and 15 December (0161-907 5278/9)Reuse content