English National Opera – Radamisto

Radamisto – opera by George Frideric Handel to an anonymous libretto adapted from Domenico Lalli’s L’amor tyrannico, o Zenobia [sung in an English translation by Christopher Cowell with English surtitles]

Radamisto – Lawrence Zazzo
Zenobia – Christine Rice
Tiridate – Ryan McKinny
Polissena – Sophie Bevan
Farasmane – Henry Waddington
Tigrane – Ailish Tynan

Orchestra of English National Opera
Laurence Cummings

David Alden – Director
Gideon Davey – Designer
Rick Fisher – Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: 7 October, 2010
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Henry Waddington as Farasmane, Sophie Bevan as Polissena & Ryan McKinny as Tiridate (Radamisto, ENO, 2010). Photograph: Clive BardaPast meets present at the London Coliseum. David Alden returns to the company where he was the most prominent purveyor of post-modern productions during the “Powerhouse” years of the 1980s, his “Mazeppa” production an icon of that era, his reputation as enfant terrible sustained in the meantime in Europe and America. He resumes his relationship with the operas of Handel, directing a star countertenor and a trio of fresh sopranos from the British Isles new to the work.

“Radamisto” was Handel’s first contribution to the Royal Academy of Music, not an institution for musical education but the ambitious child of a scheme conceived by a group of English aristocrats to bring musicians of the highest class to London to perform Italian opera. The Academy began in a blaze of glory and thrived for the best part of ten years before running out of steam.

Lawrence Zazzo as Radamisto (ENO, 2010). Photograph: Clive Barda“Radamisto” was premiered in April 1720; such was its success, the sold-out opening night attended by both the King and the Prince of Wales, that it must have seemed to the management so bankable bet that it was duly revived in December of the same year. By this stage the rather modest original cast, only three of whom were Italian, was enhanced by the arrival of the legendary castrato known as Senesino. He unsurprisingly was cast in the title role, enabling the previous performer of that part, the soprano Margherita Durastanti, to move across to play the hero’s wife Zenobia. Handel made radical alterations to the work to accommodate his new forces. Radamisto’s music was transposed and expanded, while that for Zenobia (a role originally written for a contralto) had of necessity to be transposed into a higher vocal range. In all, ten new arias were written. The character of Fraarte, a second henchman of Tiridate, was relegated in importance. At the same time, Handel enlarged the role of Tigrane.

So the first strategic decision for ENO to take was which of the 1720 editions to use. Though some scholars argue the merits of the April score, the one from December is more highly-coloured and is understandably chosen here. Fraarte disappeared altogether. The three-act structure was condensed into two, entitled respectively “War” and “Peace”; one small piece of Handel’s original ballet music was retained to start the second.

Alden’s designer Gideon Davey contributes a mixed bag of settings and props. The sets and costumes draw their inspiration from a whole assortment of creative sources and cultures ranging from the Ottoman Empire to central Asia. The abstract shapes of black on red which represent the besieged city in the first half give way to stylised narrative painting before turning back inwards with the self-referential reflective surface which dominates the final scenes (I found the latter irritating – what is the point of allowing us to see the conductor at work?).

Our understanding was challenged right from the start with the appearance of Tigrane, chief of staff of the Armenian ruler Tiridate. He was corpulent, balding, bespectacled and moustachioed in a western hot-climate suit and tie. What were we to make of this figure? Alden will often draw on a wide range of social and political references to build his productions and I came to the conclusion that in Tigrane he was depicting an expatriate civil-servant working for the leader of a former colony, his native culture having been largely subsumed into the European one. He has literally grown fat in the service of his ruthless master but he is frustrated, not only by his failure to persuade Polissena (Tiridate’s wife and the target of his own love) to leave her husband for him but also for his lack of true authority. He only has the power to order Tiridate’s army into battle, not to be a warrior himself. There is a telling moment in the first Act which illustrates his powerlessness. The Thracian king Farasmane, who has been captured and imprisoned by Tiridate, is tethered by a rope and Tigrane uses it to assert sway over him but he frustratingly loses control as Farasmane frees himself and walks voluntarily back to captivity. He is rarely off the stage. Later the emphasis turns to his dilemma over working for a tyrant, from whose service he eventually resigns on moral grounds.

There was no subtlety in the characterisation of Tiridate: Alden treated him at face-value as purely one-dimensional until the denouement. His treatment of his wife Polissena was made even-more cruel by the lack of finality about his abandonment of her. In the first scene they have together he forces himself upon her physically, pinning her against a wall. This is blatant sexual violence. Later a parallel with the behaviour of Don Giovanni struck me in the mixture of physical intimidation and seductiveness in his treatment of women. His is indeed a kingdom in which sadism is normal. Not only are sentences of death arbitrarily imposed but physical abuse is an everyday occurrence. Slaves are literally kicked around. Even the captured king of Thrace is bound and at one point dragged across the stage.

Christine Rice as Zenobia & Lawrence Zazzo as Radamisto (ENO, 2010). Photograph: Clive BardaThe costumes are lavish, with the exception of Farasmane’s prison garb. The black armour which Tiridate donned for the final attack on the Thracian city was replaced by the sumptuous wardrobe of a confident Eastern potentate. Various animals which dressed the set must have some emblematic significance. The peacocks in Tiridate’s palace are presumably the animal equivalent of the alpha male to which he aspires. A tied and pierced leopard is suspended above the stage in the final scene; hunting for sport with no concern for endangered species is the order of the day in this kingdom. The meaning of an elephant surmounted by a bear escaped me and the magic dragon whose fiery breath Tiridate uses to frighten his tiresome wife introduced a supernatural element into an opera generally admired for not relying on such artificial assistance.

This is no concept production; I did not discern in it a central point of reference, only an assembly of discrete ideas, some illuminating, others puzzling, but all, it must be said, carried out with absolute conviction by the cast. It was far from a physically comfortable production. Principals crawled around the stage and made their entrances rolled up in rugs. Sophie Bevan was supine in the opening scene and Christine Rice was required to sing her aria ‘Fatemi, o cieli, almen’ with her upper body in a horizontal position.

However, the standard of the singing banished doubts about the staging. The female roles have been astutely cast, playing to the strengths of the three singers involved. Ailish Tynan excels as a singing actress and embodies Alden’s imaginative concept of the character with consistent inventiveness. She even introduces humour, supposedly lacking in this most severely formulaic of opere serie. The generally camp treatment of the of the character becomes explicit in certain episodes, such as his offer of a bouquet of paper flowers to Polissena and the dance he performs during his aria ‘La sorte, il ciel, amor’. I felt Tynan’s lyric soprano was stretched by the decorations which were presumably incorporated into her arias at the suggestion of the conductor, especially the top Bs and Cs. Laurence Cummings favours flamboyant, not to say gaudy decorations in da capo sections; on occasions this produced a thrilling effect but other times it seemed merely profligate. In the case of Tiridate’s opening aria it added an unwanted layer of bluster to the singing.

Christine Rice as Zenobia & Lawrence Zazzo as Radamisto (ENO, 2010). Photograph: Clive BardaChristine Rice was an inspired choice for Zenobia, described in the podcast associated with this production as “the only person who knows what she wants”, the recitative bristles with interest from Rice’s participation, notably in the powerful exchange with Radamisto when she seeks to die at his hand. The mezzo’s dark timbre, strong core to her tone and authority, allied to a formidable technique, make her an ideal exponent of the part.

Sophie Bevan, a member of the ENO Young Singers Programme, more than held her own in this company. If Polissena’s extreme submissiveness will always strain credulity, Bevan focused dramatically on her consistent nobility and in her final aria ‘Barbaro! Partirò’ displayed a technique combining speed and agility which was extraordinaryRadamisto is described in the podcast as a “wet blanket” and so he is but it takes strongly focused acting to transmit this interpretation of the character. Lawrence Zazzo has a positive presence and worked hard to enlist our sympathy. His singing was as impressive as that of any countertenor on the operatic stage. His is not a high-lying role, which benefited his strong lower register. There is a particularly poignant region in the middle of the voice, much employed in the address to his wife’s ghost when she has supposedly drowned. (“Ombra cara di mia sposa” in the original Italian.) This aria was magically performed, the gurgling strings and lamenting bassoons forming a memorable foundation to Zazzo’s finely controlled singing. The contrast in the da capo was executed most movingly by taking it softly and fading away at the conclusion. His florid technique in ‘Vile, se mi dai vita’ was no less commanding. Ryan McKinny has an enviable vocal range well suited to the demands of Tiridate’s part. Henry Waddington’s dignified projection of Farasmane was seconded by his smoothly produced bass; a single aria from this singer seemed a rather miserly award in the score.

The ENO Orchestra is not a ‘period’-instrument band but no apology was needed for the style or quality of its playing. Free of the dogmatism of some musicians in this field, Cummings summoned a distinctive sound which I found refreshing. The general texture was pliant and easy on the ear, with the acerbic sound of ‘authentic’ violins absent and the oboes and bassoons subtly blended with the strings. At the brisk tempos chosen for the faster arias the players maintained crisp buoyancy, while never depriving the slow, emotional music of its due weight. Horns and trumpets chimed in atmospherically at suitable moments.

The performance persuaded me that “Radamisto” ranks among Handel’s finest operas. It is a work which counters the moral simplifications which normally characterise opera plots, with dogmatic black-and-white distinctions between good and evil embodied in the characters. For most of the opera Tiridate is portrayed as a black-hearted villain who will stop at nothing to achieve his selfish aim, to gain possession of a woman, a lustful ambition which motivates a bloody war. His quest is carried out openly and in full view of his wife, who, nevertheless, when offered the opportunity to take revenge, magnanimously re-asserts her conjugal loyalty. Even the cut-and-dried villain ends the opera retaining his throne, reconciled with his wife and looking forward to a benevolent reign. Handel and his anonymous librettist, probably Nicola Haym, created a work which personifies the importance of forgiveness and repentance.

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