Staging Handel’s Tamerlano: a conversation with Dionysios Kyropoulos

Tamerlane (1336-1405): Mongol conqueror, masterful military leader and tactician, murderous tyrant.  The son of a nomadic shepherd Taraqai – a minor nobleman from the Barlas tribe – Tamerlane (also known as Timur, Timur Lenk and Timour) is now most oft remembered for the gruesome military campaigns that made him the emperor of lands stretching from Delhi to the Mediterranean and left many millions slaughtered.  Though also considered a great patron of the arts who left a considerable cultural legacy, in the West Tamerlane’s reputation has largely derived from representations such as that in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine (1590).  The Tamerlane we picture is evil, ruthless and dangerous, a bloody-thirsty psychopath whose cruelty is legendary: for instance, he is purported to have imprisoned the captured Turkish sultan Bajazet (Bayezid I) in a small cage on public view and made Bajazet’s wife wait on him naked at his table.

The achievements and notoriety of Tamerlane seem to have both enthralled and appalled Europeans between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.  We find his savage exploits dramatised in plays by Marlowe, Racine, and Rowe; in operas by Vivaldi, Scarlatti, and Handel; and in countless visual artworks.  In his essay ‘Of Repentance’, Michel de Montaigne, arguing that each of us has an innate nature that cannot be changed, writes: ‘So we give demons wild shapes.  And who does not give Tamerlane raised eyebrows, open nostrils, a dreadful face, and immense size, like the size of the imaginary picture of him we have formed from the renown of his name?’

Dionysios directing (photo by Pablo F. Juárez)

But, are all cultural representations of Tamerlane so unequivocal and unnuanced?  Not according to Dionysios Kyropoulos, Professor of Historical Stagecraft at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama in London, whose new production of Handel’s Tamerlano (1724) will be staged in April by the Cambridge Handel Opera Company.  Dionysios teaches period acting, rhetorical delivery and gesture at the Vocal Studies and Historical Performance Departments at the Guildhall, and in conversation he explains to me how he seeks to integrate the acting style of Handel’s time with the libretti and music of his operas in order to appreciate the cultural contexts in which Baroque opera was created and received, and thereby inform interpretations of these works for present-day audiences. 

I wonder how Dionysios’ interest in the rather ‘niche’ study of Baroque theatrical practice has come about?  Hailing from a small city, Veria, in the north of Greece, Dionysios did not encounter opera until he was studying acting in Athens, during which time a performance of Verdi’s Don Carlos moved him profoundly that it led him to change direction and train to be an opera singer.  He travelled to England to study at the Guildhall, a move which disrupted his identity: he could no longer ‘be’ an actor, not least because he spoke very little English, but he was also surprised and unsettled by the fact that the study of singing seemed divorced from the study of acting.  The inference was that singers didn’t seem to care, or didn’t need to care, about acting.  “There are acting techniques that simply can’t be implemented in singing.  For example, you can’t move yourself to tears when singing a high note, and the operatic vocal technique is so demanding that it puts the voice axiomatically in the driving seat.  Also, as an actor, you are the composer, having complete control over pacing, pitch, dynamics and pauses.  As an opera singer, most of these elements are already dictated, and acting is focused mainly on the visual aspects.  I initially found it really frustrating.  There was little balance, it was all about the voice.  As an actor, I felt somewhat aggrieved.  Opera is a dramatic genre.”

A plate from Jelgerhuis’ acting treatise Theoretische lessen

It was when Andrew Lawrence-King at the Guildhall introduced Dionysios to historical theatrical gesture that he first became intrigued.  “Nearly all of the scholarship on historically-informed performance practice has focused on the music.  So, I started researching and found that there are hundreds of historical treatises and period commentaries on theatrical practice.  I was quite angry in a way!  Why do we take such pains over the musical domain of the practice but ignore the acting side when there is so much material available?”  Dionysios explains that over the last decade his investigations have revealed the neoclassical foundations of Baroque acting, which is based closely in rhetoric.  “With a Romantic opera most of the modern acting techniques work, making less necessary the introduction of a new ‘concept’, but with Baroque operas directors seem to feel the need to ‘re-invent’ because film-style acting would appear ridiculous when singers have to deal with long introductions and endless repetitions.  So, I wanted to explore if historical acting techniques could guide and support singers performing these works.  And I wanted to focus on historical acting in its own terms, using it as a craft in its own right – one that doesn’t have to necessarily be parcelled up with aspects such as period costumes and candle lights. This, in turn, allowed me to rapidly advance my practice, and eight years of teaching historical acting techniques has demonstrated that they can lend their power and beauty to the performance of any sung repertoire.  Not just a Baroque aria – but even a nineteenth-century Lied.”

There are three principles that must be observed, Dionysios elaborates.  First, Beauty, in a Classical sense – “like the beauty found in the form of a standing statue.  But beautiful postures and gestures that don’t move the audience cannot be considered beautiful.”  Dionysios borrows a Neoplatonist philosopher’s analogy: a golden shield is ugly because the metal is too soft and it cannot fulfil its purpose, while a dung basket that does its job is beautiful.  Acting’s purpose is to move the audience, and this leads to the second principle, Rhetoric.  “Every gesture should convey an emotion or meaning, and one can move the listener simply by changing the weight of their body, allowing a particular word to best fulfil its ‘purpose’.”  The third principle is Nature.  “A performance should appear natural, as if coming from the heart.  This principle trumps all others, as even the rules of classical beauty can be ‘broken’ for effect.  The rules therefore are not there to constrain the performer, they offer greater freedom.  They provide more colours with which to paint.” 

Costume design (Andronico) by Rachel Szmukler

Similarly, Dionysios believes that employing historical acting techniques doesn’t restrict one to ‘period settings’.  “I actively try not to set an opera as taking place ‘now’ or at a particular point of the past, but aim to achieve a more timeless effect that enables one to focus on the drama and characters.  So, in our Tamerlano the costumes are minimal but aim to communicate to the audience clear characterisation, and I work closely with the designer to make sure every element contributes to the storytelling.  Tamerlano’s costume aims to convey to the audience his principal identity as a military man.  Being a field uniform, devoid of the shiny trappings of mess dress, allows his visual identity to better reflect the character’s humble origins.  In contrast, although Andronico’s costume also visually defines him as military man, the full-dress uniform and frock, complete with sash, leaves no doubt of his princely origins.  As the opera moves forward so does Tamerlano’s character journey, and we see him increasingly embracing his new identity by progressively replacing items of his military uniform, starting with donning the imperial robe.”

Dionysios continues, “I try to avoid generic historical costume since it often distracts and dilutes the power of historical acting, and it perpetuates the idea of the all or nothing approach, that Baroque gesture should only be allowed on stage dressed in the right costumes.  I disagree.  Its power is inherent in the art itself, and I make my work my manifesto.”  CHOC’s Tamerlano will thus have a symbolic setting with no specific time period and will strive for clear definition of character.  This returns us to the question of who and what Handel’s Tamerlano is?  As, Dionysios says “We have pictures and we have stories of this historical figure.  We remember the awful things that this ‘evil baddie’ did.  But Handel’s Tamerlano is very different.”

Costume design (Tamerlano) by Rachel Szmukler

It’s worth reflecting on the context in which Handel’s opera was created, performed and received.  On 4th November 1724, the Daily Courant carried an announcement that Nicholas Rowe’s 1701 play Tamerlane would be performed that evening at both Drury Lane and Lincoln’s Inn Fields, continuing the annual tradition of presenting the play on 4th and 5th November to commemorate William III’s birthday and his arrival England in 1688 – thus confirming the allegorical reading that saw Tamerlane as William III, an upholder of peace at home and abroad, and the defeated Sultan Bajazet as Louis XIV, a war-mongering oppressor of French Protestants, and so promoting parliamentary sovereignty over absolutism.  From 1716, Rowe’s play was performed six to ten times a year for 60 years, and Linda McJannet notes that there were 35 editions of Rowe’s play published between 1701 and 1835, unprecedented for a Restoration play.  McJannet suggests that Rowe’s Tamerlane is ‘the very model of a Christian prince’ whose ‘modesty and virtue are repeatedly displayed’, in contrast to the insolent, aggressive Bajazet.[1]

That issue of the Daily Courant also announced that ‘on the 7th of November, will be perform’d, a New Opera, call’d, Tamerlane’Tamerlano had opened a week earlier and had been performed the preceding evening: McJannet argues that in the opera ‘the defeated Ottoman emperor Bajazet is not a condensation of all the traits of eastern tyranny. He is rather an extraordinarily tragic figure, the very embodiment of honour and virtue’.  Moreover, in McJannet’s view ‘Tamerlano is no less intriguing: in Rowe’s tragedy he is a tedious example of piety, virtue, and martial restraint, but in the Handel opera he is far more impulsive.  His desires, both sexual and political, are fully presented and we are given a portrait of a ruler who, until Bajazet’s sobering suicide, firmly believes that anyone and anything can be bought.’

McJannet’s reading suggests that London audiences were simultaneously presented with two radically different versions of this historical tale.  Indeed, a glance through musicological commentary confirms that the prevailing view is that within Handel’s opera sympathy swings back to the Ottoman sultan, emphasising Bajazet’s nobility.  Characteristically in his liner note, ‘The History of Tamerlano’, accompanying the 2002 DVD of Jonathan Miller’s production of the opera with The English Concert and Trevor Pinnock, Terence Best proposes that the libretto is firmly on the Turkish side, noting the insults that the characters fling at the villainous Tamerlano (‘that wretch’, ‘Fiend’, ‘scoundrel’, ‘Barbarian’) and arguing that it is Bajazet who is the tragic hero of the work.

Detail of a plate from Austin’s Chironomia, illustrating the use of a system gestural notation.

Dionysios disagrees.  He draws attention to the concept of the four Temperaments that was current in the early eighteenth century, observing that the man in the street would have an inherent notion of the four character-types.  Composers and librettists were thinking in terms of temperaments when writing characters.  “Singers would perform numerous roles each season.  They relied on their understanding of temperaments as a shorthand.”  Dionysios believes that Handel’s Tamerlano is not choleric at all.  “Each of Tamerlano’s arias presents a lovely sanguine character.  He is generous, lovely, honourable.  He won over Bajazet to stop the Ottomans and restore the Byzantine throne to the rightful heir.  He is a victim of misunderstanding, partly as a result of being constantly attacked and humiliated by his self-centred, proud, and insufferable captive.  And he progressively becomes more angry because of this treatment, affected by the strong gravitational pull of Bajazet’s protypically choleric personality.  And, after all, Bajazet is a tenor: the tenor role is always the ‘baddie’ in Handel.  Tamerlano is moved by love and is giving everything.  An empire to Andronico, and to Asteria his hand, his throne, and freedom of her father.”

“The final chorus has a happy text but very sombre music: Handel, a true man of the theatre, adds another layer to the libretto’s conventional lieto fine.  Even though everything is resolved, Tamerlano is unhappy for Bajazet’s death, and for allowed his actions to be influenced by his destructive outbursts.  As the son of a shepherd, he is not divinely appointed to rule, but his conduct earned him that right.  Putting Tamerlano in a choleric box forces his music to become silly, ironic and nonsensical, while though a sanguine prism the music reflects his warm and carefree air. Historical acting practice gives us the tools to approach the text with fresh eyes and gain this new understanding.” 

Dionysios began working with the CHOC cast in October last year during a number of workshops which enabled him to teach the basics of historical acting technique and expression and to have conversations with the singers about character.  The countertenor James Laing, who recently performed the role of Tamerlane in Irish National Opera’s production of Vivaldi’s Bajazet at the Royal Opera House, is again taking the title role.  “The Tamerlano in Vivaldi’s opera is very different from Handel’s, and James has been very excited for the challenge of jumping from a choleric archetype to a more sanguine Tamerlano.”  The part of rhetoric in the directorial approach is fundamental: “A well-written speech will not move an audience if it is performed badly.  Similarly in opera, the most profound music, the most well well-chosen words, will not contribute to the drama if the action is not coherent.  The focus on text removes the need for unnecessary stage business.  That doesn’t mean that the performance should be or will be static, rather that every detail of the visual aspects of the performance must be well-judged and varied – alive and developing even through the numerous repetitions.  This will keep the performance within style, while endowing it with beauty and nature.”

Cambridge Handel Opera Company will perform Handel’s Tamerlano at the Great Hall at The Leys in Cambridge on 5, 6, 8, 9 April 2022.

Claire Seymour

[1] Linda McJannet, ‘Timur’s theatrical journey: Or, when did Tamburlaine become black?’, Journal of the Spanish Society for English Renaissance Studies, Vol.26 (2016): 31-66.

ABOVE: Gesture of sorrow from Lang’s Dissertatio de actione scenica and an instance of it on the Georgian stage, used by Hob’s mother in the well scene in Hippisley’s ballad opera Flora (as painted by John Laguerre who plays the drenched Hob pictured in the middle).