Christie’s Curate’s Egg – Handel’s Radamisto (22 March)


Farasmane – Rolf Haunstein
Radamisto – Marijana Mijanovic
Zenobia – Liliana Nikiteanu
Tigrane – Isabel Rey
Tiridate – Reinhard Mayr
Polissena – Malin Hartelius
Fraarte – Elizabeth Rae Magnuson

Orchestra La Scintilla, Opera Zürich
William Christie

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 22 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

After last year’s abortive Armide, which fell foul of a funding crisis that saw the whole Zürich Opera production – Harnoncourt and Bartoli notwithstanding – cancelled, London audiences were now able to sample Zürich Opera’s long-standing baroque opera tradition in the Royal Festival Hall’s Classic International series.Such is that tradition, that William Christie has been inveigled over from Caen and his beloved Les Arts Florissants (in much the same way as he had been inveigled away from the Barbican where we see him most these days), to continue the acclaimed string of productions that Harnoncourt started in the 1970s.On the bill rare Handel – in his early opera for London, Radamisto, first seen at the King’s Theatre Haymarket on 27 April 1720, attended by both King George I and the Prince of Wales, returning in a revised version on 29 December that year.

Radamisto was the first product under Handel’s new contract as Music Director of the Royal Academy of Music and he was able to call on the best Italian singers of the day. Handel’s revision is interesting as he made wholesale changes to voice types.Christie gave us a hotchpotch.Radamisto himself was played by mezzo Marijana Mijanovic (dressed in a John Travolta-like white suit in the first half, but more soberly dressed, in John Major grey, when disguised as Ismane in the second). In April 1720 it was a soprano, and in December’s revision the castrato Senesino (aka Francesco Baernardi).However, we got the original voice for Radamisto’s wife, Zenobia – here mezzo Liliana Nikiteanu – Handel changed alto for soprano for his revision.Meanwhile we got the revised stipulation for Zenobia’s stalker, Tiridate, King of Armenia, here sung by bass Reinhard Mayr, whereas in April 1720 the character’s first interpreter was a tenor.

Given that Handel then revised Radamisto a number of times (including for Hamburg, when it became Zenobia) there are presumably a whole host of editorial decisions to be made by conductor and producer – here Claus Guth, who was notable by his complete absence in the programme – as to which version to use, or versions from which to pick and choose.Unfortunately the note gave no information on this at all.

Yet, it is undeniable that Handel’s Radamisto is a masterpiece; positively Shakespearean in its ability to express so many emotions in so little time: Radamisto’s and Zenobia’s horror at being parted, and joy when reunited; Tiridate’s jealousy and guilt for wanting Zenobia; Tiridate’s wife (and Radamisto’s brother), Polissena (soprano Malin Hartelius), who bitterly realises that Tiridate no longer loves him, while having to deal with the unwanted advances of Tigrane, Prince of Pontus.Are you confused?Well you would have been more so given the wholly inadequate synopsis provided, and the impossibility (with just surtitles) to readily gauge which singer was which character at the start (surely, the subtitles could have listed each new character the first time they sang?).The synopsis didn’t mention aria titles which might have helped and gave no indication where in Act Two the interval was (we were told after Scene 3, but there was no indication of which scene was which).

The programme problems seemed to be reflected on stage.The plus points included Christie’s propulsive reading of the score; charging Handel’s music with pulsating drama, admirably matched by Zürich Opera’s baroque band, La Scintilla, although the massed ranks of violins seemed to overawe the cellos and basses at times. Sometimes Christie’s fleet speeds was ungrateful to the soloists, making it impossible to clearly articulate trills (rather important in Handel operas you would have thought), but the vocal contributions were wayward in themselves.

Apart from Rolf Haunstein as Farasmane (King of Thrace and both Radamisto and Polissena’s father) who was out-of-sorts, let alone tune, throughout, the rest of the cast had their highpoints and, dispiritingly, low points.This is perhaps the most uneven evening of singing I have ever heard; each singer reaching the heights, but also plumbing the depths.Just a week into the fully-staged run in Zürich one might have expected a few vocal wobbles, but not problems of pitch and the practicality of singing at the speeds that Christie seemed intent on setting.

Yet there was much to enjoy, and Claus Guth’s production, from the moves his singers naturally made, seemed to make a lot of sense out of the mixed, nay tortured, emotions of Handel’s characters, Zenobia’s Sellars-like hand movements aside in one of her woeful moments.Apart from Christian Schmidt’s designs we only missed the troupe of dancers.

Expectations from Christie’s Glyndebourne collaborations – Theodora and Rodelinda, the latter receiving a fantastic Royal Festival Hall performance two years ago – were sadly dashed.Warmly greeted at the end, this was an evening that, like the proverbial curate’s egg was ’good in parts’ – but the quality of Handel’s opera shone through.

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