The upcoming production of Tamerlano at Covent Garden is exciting for a number of reasons. For a start it’s the first time that Royal Opera have presented Handel’s 1724 masterpiece, secondly Graham Vick’s production has received rave reviews since it premiered at the Maggio Musicale in Florence in 2001, and thirdly the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will make a very welcome return to the pit.

There’s no denying, however, that last week’s news of Plácido Domingo’s withdrawal from the role of Bajazet is a major disappointment.

“It’s a great shame but Tamerlano is not a vehicle opera,” Vick explains, when I catch up with him in between rehearsals. “It’s a great role but there are four great roles and the evening is shared out. I think Plácido would have brought, and probably has still brought, a different audience to Handel opera.” Domingo had debuted the role at a revival run in Madrid a couple of years ago – a performance that was captured for posterity on DVD – and British audiences had been keen to hear this tenor, whose glittering career has been defined by the Italian greats, tackle Baroque opera.

I suggest that Domingo’s interest and involvement is indicative of the status that early opera now enjoys. “Little by little the doors are opening,” Vick responds, “we’re using the OAE here, for example, but still this auditorium is a monument to the nineteenth century.” There have only been a handful of Handel operas performed at Covent Garden. “They’ve done Samson here before because it has a big chorus, and they’ve done Orlando because it’s magic and spectacular,” Vick explains, “but Tamerlano doesn’t lend itself to glamour, it’s about words and its musical gestures are small and intimate.”

Handel claimed to have written the work in a white heat of inspiration that lasted 20 days during July of 1724. If that’s not astonishing enough, one must remember that Tamerlano is sandwiched between Giulio Cesare, which premiered earlier the same year and Rodelinda which followed in 1725. Vick is, of course, one of Britain’s most versatile stage directors, with much experience of early opera, but he declares Tamerlano his favourite Handel opera. While some directors feel straight-jacketed by the conventions of opera seria Vick revels in the challenges and opportunities it presents.

I ask him to explain the inspirations behind his interpretation of the piece and he points to its dramatic structure. “It’s the meditational quality of the da capo arias. There’s the linear drive of the recitatives but then there’s this wonderful ease with which you inhabit the thoughts of one character who’s arrived at a particular point in the drama. It’s a series of stop-offs and that’s the basic idea for the whole show.” Richard Hudson’s austerely beautiful set designs, which won a Prague Quadrennial prize, appear to offer the perfect complement. And the costumes, though stunningly detailed, are for the most part monochrome.

In the past Vick’s approach has been characterised by critics as “poetic” and this certainly seems an apt description of his attempt here to create “a world in which a single word can fill the stage.”

It’s an approach that is at odds with many successful Handel productions of recent years – one thinks of Christopher Alden’s Partenope and, perhaps above all, David McVicar’s Giulio Cesare – that have presented the opera with a developed sense of irony and high-camp. “This is the opposite,” Vick confirms, “There’s no floorshow, there’s no wit unless the text is witty, it’s a dead straight reading of the piece and it’s a reaction against overworking and over-apologising.” He believes in opera seria and he wants to ease contemporary audiences into a way of listening that is befitting.

“Eighteenth-century audiences lived life at a different pace: they had not done a day’s work in the office, got the childcare sorted, made a million phone calls, listened to their iPod on the tube and then rushed into the theatre,” he explains. “This production gathers a deliberately careful momentum.”

Vick would prefer to do an out-and-out farce than an oblique send-up of Handel’s operas. Everyone knows about John Gay’s contemporary satire, The Beggar’s Opera, and the repercussions after its premiere in 1728, but in the past Vick has enjoyed directing The Dragon of Wantley, a lesser-known 1737 work by John Frederick Lampe that makes a very direct mockery of Handel’s operatic style. “There’s an aria in which two women sing ‘happy we p-iiii-iiii-iiii-gs’, it’s ludicrous!”

Tamerlano, by contrast, is an intense and serious drama, and it demands a great deal from the assembled cast. Domingo was always going to share the role of Bajazet with the American tenor Kurt Streit, who will now perform the entire run; Baroque specialist Sara Mingardo will play Andronico; and Christianne Stotijn will make her Royal Opera debut in the title role. This Dutch mezzo-soprano has done relatively little opera, but her recent recording of Tchaikovsky Romances with Julius Drake was much praised, and expectations are running high for her performance here.

Of course Domingo will be sorely missed but who knows, this production might just turn out another star.

- Laura Battle