Tamerlano, Scottish Opera, Theatre Royal, Glasgow</br>Siegfried Act III, Halle Orchestra, Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

Handel in Iraq and ruin
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The Independent Culture

Things are not looking good for Scottish Opera. Nor should they be when productions as ill-conceived and ill-executed as Tamerlano are given the green light. A superb Handelian with his own period instruments ensemble, conductor Christian Curnyn is unable to galvanize this orchestra to play expressively in an unfamiliar argot. The overture stagnates, the arias are accompanied with a stolid, inflexible tone, and there are long, inexplicable caesurae. Meanwhile, director John La Bouchardière assays an unconvincing analogue for modern-day Iraq in an opera about two medieval plenipotentiaries.

Instead of addressing Handel's austere study of power and powerlessness, La Bouchardière communicates the squeaking anxiety of a bien-pensant Westerner. Set in a ransacked gallery - the Iraq Museum, Baghdad, says the programme - Acts I and II see the protagonists scramble up and down the Assyrian antiquities like pre-schoolers in a play centre. Clambering over the impassive shedu, they try to distract the audience from the reiterations of da capo form. Chainmail and tunics give way to modern dress. Asteria (Gail Pearson) dons a jilbab, and is draped with a muddied Union Jack as she grieves over her dead father, Bajazet (Tom Randle), who may or may not be Saddam Hussein.

La Bouchardière's outrage over the rape of the Iraq Museum indicates he is a liberal, albeit one who has forgotten the Taliban's Tamerlano-esque destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. You can imagine sitting down at a dinner party with him, admiring the organic Riesling and trying to locate an acceptable view on the wearing of veils. Yet his relentless humiliation of Irene (Jennifer Johnston), who is squeezed into an nipple-grazing, mini-skirted French maid's costume, casts a blokey pall over this pageant of political correctness. He is not the first director to be stymied by the stock opera seria wallflower mezzo, nor is he the first to reveal a schoolboy terror of embonpoint. But it would be nice, just once, to see Irene directed with pathos and sympathy.

That Johnston delivers such stylish, sweet-toned singing while teetering on stilettos is a minor miracle. At least she knows her function. So too does Jonathan Best (Leon), whose dour Edwardian gentleman's gentleman is wheeled on for comic relief. As Tamerlano, Max Emanuel Cencic is first a sword-wielding despot, then a gun-toting hoodie, yet produces some peerless coloratura with his petite countertenor. Less fortunate are William Purefoy, (sounding rather curdled as Andronicus), Pearson (miscast as Asteria), and Randle, under-directed as Bajazet, but who papers over the cracks in the director's concept with subtle reactions to the others: glowering, twitching, biting his tongue, and dying most movingly. Not that anyone, audience included, is encouraged to pay attention in an opera held hostage by its hand-wringing and played as though it were Mendelssohn.

It was odd in the extreme to jump cold into Act III of Siegfried in Mark Elder's concert performance with the Hallé Orchestra last weekend. As much an event as a performance, this was the latest stage in Ben Heppner's cautious campaign to add the role to his repertoire. Gleaming and brilliant of tone, with exquisite diction and magnificent phrasing, Heppner was a compelling hero, well-matched by Anna Larsson's burnished, melancholy Erda, Irène Théorin's ardent, ultra-feminine Brünnhilde, and Johan Reuter's eloquent, if subdued, Wotan. More magnetic than the singers, however, was the Hallé. Elder's propulsive conducting highlighted details of articulation and instrumental colour that would be lost in any theatre. As Wagner's motifs passed from choir to choir of instruments, flowering then subsiding, this was an unusually intimate and heady encounter with the score.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

* Tamerlano, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 529 6000) from Friday

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