OPERA / Handel with care: Handel a seriously good revival in Leeds: Tamburlaine - Opera North

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The Independent Culture
Philip Prowse's staging of Handel's Tamburlaine has been revived by Opera North with a new and mainly strong cast. For me, it is one of Prowse's most powerful conceptions.

True, there remains the group of female refugees, derived neither from the libretto nor the music, who occupy front of stage throughout. True, the distinction between prison and palace required by the libretto is not made (Prowse's single set, dominated by two gigantic horses, presents a razed throne surrounded by ruins and stylised stone corpses). And, true, some characters seem to be draped in magnificent bed-covers.

But Handel is at his most uncompromising in this opera, and Prowse takes him seriously. The prevalence of the minor mode is perfectly matched by the sobriety of the set and costumes. Dramatic intensity is maintained by unity of place. Those who hate the conception must admire the precision with which the mute minions play their roles, deftly manipulating the huge trains whose splendour and colour signify political influence. Exaggeratedly hierarchical costuming is matched by the sharply stylised gestures which would be telling even if the opera were sung in Italian 'whereas it is declaimed with exemplary clarity in a sensible translation by Robert David MacDonald'.

Roy Goodman directs, using a small orchestra with basses placed centrally. He has coached the modern instrument performers to play in period style to excellent effect. It would be better still if a long evening were not extended indulging too many of the da capo arias with slow tempi: the trio and sequence of short arias in Act 2, and the superb recitative of Bajazet's suicide, should harrow rather than relieve our feelings as a welcome contrast.

Geoffrey Dolton made the most of the minor role of Leone, and Patricia Bardon was a stately Irene, working her way to Tamburlaine's throne and bed. As the unhappy Asteria, Rosa Mannion took a little time to settle but, in her fierce attacks on the tyrant, and her lonely decision to fade away rather than marry Andronicus, she acted strongly and sang with fervour and fine control of line.

The castrato roles were taken by male altos. Christopher Robson as Tamburlaine, despite his hideously shaven head and spitting vituperation, lacked credibility because the sound was so small and the voice so often uncontrolled. As Andronicus, Graham Pushee (making his British debut) was a real discovery: a voice of rare beauty and flexibility, both lyrical and dramatic, worthy to be heard alongside the ripe tenor of Philip Langridge, whose masterly Bajazet is beyond criticism.

Thu, Fri, Leeds Grand (0532 465906); then on tour