A tyrant straining every sinew to be a graceful lover

Director Francis Matthews talks about Handel’s Tamerlano

Handel’s Tamerlano isn’t much like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine. Tamburlaine eats fire, administers scourge and terror, sees himself as a force of nature – and Marlowe imagines him in a language of extremes. ‘He now is seated on my horsemens’ spearers’… ‘We used to march upon the slaughtered foe: trampling their bowels with our horses’ hooves’… ‘swelling clouds drawn from wide gasping wounds – resolved in bloody purple showers’… this is old-fashioned shock and awe. The playwright was determined to frighten his audience, to intoxicate by their proximity to the power of this elemental demi-God. The play has a massive cast and certainly requires an army of extras – soldiers, citizens, concubines. When I was invited to direct Tamerlano, I thought that Buxton must have won the lottery – but looking at the Handel opera – I found a very different world.

Of course, Tamerlano himself is still the Scythian shepherd (a fact that appals his captive Bajazet, who might be more relaxed had his defeat been brought about by someone of higher social status) and a great warlord (it’s estimated that the campaigns of the historical Timur killed 17 million people in the 14th century). But we don’t meet him on the battlefield, or negotiating to take control of an empire, or accomplishing any of the remarkable feats which Marlowe celebrates. In Tamerlano the opera, we meet the oppressor (tyrant, military genius, whatever) in his palace, in his private apartments, in the company only of his captive Bajazet; Bajazet’s daughter Asteria; his vassal and brave general Andronico; and later – the woman he is supposed to marry –Irene – with her attendant and confidant Leone.

Timur is said to have been a great patron of art and architecture (when he wasn’t massacring 5% of the world’s population), and Tamerlano comes across as a man craving refinement. He does his best to behave like a courtly knight. He speaks of faith and courtesy and honour and duty and exults in the splendour of the court he has created; he speaks of having rivals in love (inevitably a pretence for so cruel and powerful a man); the music which tells us so much about him is sinuous and graceful. Without Marlowe’s army on stage, without the explicit expression of his brute strength – Tamerlano wants to be seen as a refined and noble prince. However low his birth, he aspires to beauty; however rough his upbringing, he craves a kind of sophistication.

So we are reminded of powerful men who surround themselves with great art (often looted from the civilizations they have tried to destroy) and who try to create a Petit Trianon amidst the devastation they have wrought, a place where they can practice urbanity and grace. Herman Göring surrounded himself with more than 600 works of art looted by the Nazis during World War 2, and Hitler had plans for a Fuhrermuseum where Nazi plunder would do – what? Confer some benediction on a monstrous life? We remember Diaghilev and many another impresario, wielding power behind the façade of art, controlling and manipulating the artists at their disposal. We think of the great collectors who – finally – are left cold and lonely in their cluttered galleries. Tamerlano plays mind games with those sequestered at the heart of his empire, jealous of the passions they truly feel, baffled by an instinctive honour which directs their lives. He tries to compromise their relationships, he exploits their vulnerability, and when he has achieved victory of a sort, he suddenly seems bored with his scheming and allows the lovers he has so abused to be together again.

Tamerlano is an opera in which true feeling proves to be more powerful – even though it leads to death – than the machinations of a tyrant. Even a tyrant straining every sinew to be a graceful lover.

Francis Matthews Tamerlano Director

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