Handel’s Radamisto – The English Concert [David Daniels, Patricia Bardon, Luca Pisaroni, Elizabeth Watts; cond. Harry Bicket]

Radamisto – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Niccolò Francesco Haym [performed in the Bärenreiter edition; sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Radamisto – David Daniels
Zenobia – Patricia Bardon
Tiridate – Luca Pisaroni
Tigrane – Elizabeth Watts
Polissena – Brenda Rae
Farasmane – Robert Rice

The English Concert
Harry Bicket

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 10 February, 2013
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

George Frederic Handel. Portrait by Balthasar DennerRadamisto was the first opera which Handel wrote for his prestigious Royal Academy, begun in 1720 and funded by a group of noblemen and George I. This initiated a string of thirty further Italian operas from Handel in the following twenty years, bringing the art of Baroque opera seria to its apex. Radamisto stands as the pivot in Handel’s masterly development of the genre as in some ways it harks back to earlier triumphs such as Rinaldo and forwards to operas as different as Rodelinda and Serse in terms of its depth of musical expression and tautness of dramatic form.

Although Radamisto is marked by an unusually rich palette of scoring – strings are almost always divided into four independent parts, and oboes and bassoons are frequently used in arias – it has a typically convoluted plot that revolves around the love and political interests of monarchs of distant time and geography. Tiridate, King of Armenia, is in love with Zenobia, the wife of Prince Radamisto of Thrace, but the plot is particularly contorted in that Tiridate’s wife Polissena, of whom he is tired, is none other than Radamisto’s sister. To add a further complication, Tiridate’s right-hand man Tigrane is also in love with Zenobia, but to no avail and so he eventually turns against Tiridate when the latter lays siege to Thrace in an attempt to win Zenobia.

Harry BicketTwo of the Italian singers whom Handel engaged for his Royal Academy – Senesino and Matteo Berselli – had not arrived in time for the premiere in April 1720. When they did, Handel substantially reworked the score to suit their voices. It was the revised version of December 1720 that The English Concert performed here, in the form that this took in the opera’s revival in 1721 when the part of Fraarte was eliminated.

Despite being a concert performance, musically it had much of the character of a fully realised dramatic production including, for better or worse, applause from the audience after every aria. The effect of a performance as though acted out was particularly evident amongst the singers who imparted urgency to the recitatives, and vital characterisation and development in the arias. The singers sometimes sang from scores but they were certainly not bound to them, enabling them to interact with and react to each other flexibly and believably. The English Concert occasionally seemed at odds with the intended demeanour and mood of the characters though. Radamisto’s heartfelt ‘Ombra cara’, coming in the midst of his woes, was sung by David Daniels with quiet conviction and determination, but the players seemed to want to tell a different story with their more anxious and flustered swirling counterpoint. In Tiridate’s ensuing aria the forceful, almost threatening way Luca Pisaroni had with his unwelcome addresses to Zenobia was met with an accompaniment that was a little too happy to plod along in an amiable, anodyne way. In most other respects however Harry Bicket was an effective and communicative channel between the singers and the musicians.

David Daniels. Photograph: Robert ReckerDaniels turned in a nuanced and sympathetic realisation of his role, but generally so did all the singers. As his wife Zenobia, Patricia Bardon made the part satisfyingly complementary in providing considerable weight and vigour when required, but also great tenderness. She also brought skilful control to her two numbers, ‘Fatemi, oh cieli, almen’ and ‘Deggio dunque’ which both shift almost schizophrenically between two very different moods, the character torn by various torments. Daniels showed similar agility, moving between modes of composure, still intensity and an impressively clipped and furious manner in ‘Vanne, sorella, ingrata’ and ‘Vile! Se mi dai vita’, in which he berates Polissena and Tiridate respectively.

Dressed entirely in black, Luca Pisaroni was the embodiment of evil as Tiridate, and also in the powerful, sonorous tones of his bass voice, often sang with a mixture of sly cunning and forcefulness. In ‘Alzo al volo’, Tiridate’s apparent magnanimity (implied by the confident D major of the aria and the addition of two trumpets) was belied by Pisaroni’s strained gestures which suggested instead that Tiridate was by no means the tyrant in control of events, but is also oppressed by circumstances in forcing upon Zenobia the decision between either choosing Tiridate or refusing him and thereby giving him the excuse to kill Radamisto.

As Tigrane Elizabeth Watts grew with confidence into the role, her final aria ‘Sòch’ èvana la speranza’ bringing vocal fireworks. Brenda Rae was not as committed to the part of Polissena as she might have been, sounded strangely disinterested in contemplating the difficult decision Polissena has to make between asserting loyalty to her husband or to her brother. In the role of Farasmane, Radamisto’s father, Robert Rice only had only one aria, but he brought nobility to the part.

One notable phenomenon was that the singers were generally reticent in embellishing the repetitions of the ‘A’ sections of da capo arias, until the last Act, when much more emerged. From a purely musical point of view such pyrotechnics seemed a little too showy and threatened to destabilise the drama, but it added an extra dimension of theatricality as the opera drew to its conclusion – a denouement which is barely credible as Tiridate quickly relents and promises to rule with mercy and justice. It was a shame that the final duet between Zenobia and Radamisto was omitted but this had the effect of centring the climax upon Handel’s superb quartet ‘O cedere o perir’. On the whole this was a convincing account of one of the unfairly neglected gems from the trove of Handelian opera.

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