Opera By Definition presents Handel's Tamerlano
The Opera House
Next year sees the return of Tunbridge Wells-based professional opera company Opera By Definition to what must be their spiritual home: The Opera House.
Owned by JD Wetherspoon and currently being run as a popular town centre pub, the building has a rich history and still retains many of its original features inside. This will be the third time the pub has been used to stage an opera in recent years, following the success of Opera By Definition's Cosi Fan Tutte last year and Alternative Opera's Die Fledermaus in 2006.
In February the Opera House, built in 1902 to present variety shows and pantomime to the people of Tunbridge Wells, will be returned to its former glory for a three-night run of Handel's baroque masterpiece Tamerlano.
This special occasion will premiere a newly commissioned modern English translation of the rarely-staged opera with a professional cast including Stephen Wallace, Stephen Rooke, Kate Manley, Jamie Laing, Claudia Huckle and Philip Smith – accompanied by the Opera By Definition orchestra featuring harpsichord and the rare theorbo (a plucked string instrument developed in the late sixteenth century, rather like a long-necked lute).
2009 will mark the 250th anniversary of Handel's death and it seems fitting that the company has chosen one of his least known but greatest works. Composed in the space of just 20 days in July 1724, Handel also produced two more great operas that year: Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda.
Tamerlano contains moments of outstanding lyrical beauty and bravura and this production will be the first modern English translation – by one of the UK's foremost opera translators, Christopher Cowell – ever performed in Europe.
It is a landmark opera. An actual historical event (involving the Ottoman Empire) is used to construct a noble tragedy in which love clashes with duty and tyranny is met with defiance.
The warlord Tamerlano is redeemed by the noble soul of his opponent, Bajazet, and is unable to impose his will on Bajazet despite having power over his life and death. Set against the background of war, this production updates the story to the present-day Middle East.
Opera By Definition has assembled a cast representing some of the finest voices to be heard on the English opera stage, including Stephen Wallace and Jamie Laing, two of Europe's rising stars in the new wave of counter tenors, along with the established tenor Stephen Rooke and the soprano Kate Manley. Appearing in the role of Irene is mezzo-soprano Claudia Huckle, who recently sang this role at Washington National Opera with Placido Domingo.
Opera By Definition's artistic director, Francesca Gilpin, told Go! about the forthcoming production.
"I hope people will see it as a privilege to have something this special in Tunbridge Wells. We don't really hear Handel's work performed here very often. We occasionally get The Messiah but it's very rare to get one of his operas.
"Beethoven once said 'Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave'. Praise indeed!
"He's a much-loved composer, especially by the English, and here we are, doing one of his great opera masterpieces. I think it's a wonderful opportunity for the community to see something rare."
The planning that has gone into Tamerlano is impressive and with tickets selling fast three months before the opening night, it is already exciting the area's opera lovers.
"We started working on this in June 2006 and the planning initially involved commissioning a new modern English translation – with the hope of appealing to a wider audience and making the opera accessible," says Francesca.
"We've been casting for the past year to get the singers we'll need to get Handel just right. It's different to singing Mozart or Verdi, there is an art to singing Handel. We also wanted to bring a counter tenor to Tunbridge Wells. Not only did we cast one but we have two, Stephen Wallace and Jamie Laing, who are the rising stars of counter tenor signing. To get this sort of cast is something of a coup."
With funding from Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, Opera By Definition's education project is also offering workshops based on the themes of Tamerlano to local schools.
The workshops are interactive and are designed as a prequel to the students attending the matinee performance on February 11, at a substantially reduced ticket price. This is a unique opportunity for youngsters in the area to attend an opera in a traditional theatre.
The last night performance will be a black tie gala evening in support of the cancer charity CLIC Sargent (Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted in the Opera House in 1930) and the evening performance on Wednesday February 11 will be sign interpreted.
By Caroline Jubb
Tickets on sale now. Early booking is advised as tickets are already selling fast.
February 9 at 7.30pm
February 11 (sign interpreted) at 7.30pm
February 12 at 7.30pm
Matinee: February 11 at 1.45pm
Tickets with pre-performance dinner or lunch from £60
Tickets £40 for performance only
Available via the Assembly Hall Theatre box office on 01892 530613/532072 or book online at www.assemblyhalltheatre.co.uk