Radamisto: In Need of Some Dolce Vita

United StatesUnited States Handel, Radamisto: Concert performance, The English Concert, Harry Bickett (Director/Harpsichord). Carnegie Hall, New York, 24.2.2013. (SSM)

David Daniels – Radamisto, Prince of Thrace
Patricia Bardon – Zenobia, his wife
Luca Pisaroni – Tiridate, King of Armenia
Brenda Rae – Polissena, his wife, queen and Radamisto’s sister
Joélle Harvey – Tigrane, a high-ranking Armenian soldier
David Kravitz – Farasmane, King of Thrace

Henry Bickett brought his early-instrument group, The English Concert, and Handel’s Radamisto to the United States after well-reviewed performances in England. In fact, this review is the third for S&H. The casts on both sides of the Atlantic differed only in the replacements of Tigrane and Farasmane. The minor role of Farasmane was ably handled here by David Kravitz, and the pants role of Tigrane was sung superbly by Joélle Harvey. Her sonorous voice showed no strain in the difficult La Sorte, Il Ciel, Amor.

The revival of Handel’s operas was a long time coming. There were no performances of any of them from the last five years of his life up to 1920 and a production of Rodelinda in Germany. Performances of other operas such as Giulio Cesare and Serse followed, but arias were stripped of their da capos and most recitatives secci were removed. The role of Giulio Cesare was “corrected” by transposing his arias down an octave; women singing men’s roles were apparently deemed as offensive to audiences as men singing within the tessitura of a soprano or alto. Every opera ultimately ended up as a pastiche of itself, often glued together with arias from other composers.

One can still find in print a recording of Radamisto (originally released in 1961 and re-released in 1998) done in German with a standard symphony orchestra and a basso in the role of Radamisto. This recording claimed to be the first one based on the 1720 original version (HMV 12A) but how this can be the case with a basso in the lead role and the libretto in a “non-original” language?

The version used by The English Concert here is a mix of the original two productions from 1720, the latter one modified to accommodate the vocal range of the Italian castrato Senesino. David Daniels sung the title role and, dare I say, this is the first time that he did not seem to stand out in a lead role. But given that this is a concert version with a particularly complex plot and a plethora of arias, it would be difficult to find any singer who could refine each aria to its exact emotion.

The issue of performance practice is really the key to Radamisto’s success or failure. Elsewhere I’ve distinguished between schools of historical performance which are often associated with the culture in which the groups evolve. Representing the English school throughout its long history, The English Concert has been stylish, authentic and even adventuresome in its programming, but in comparison to current Italian Baroque groups, such as Alan Curtis’s Il Complesso Barocco, Fabio Biondi’s Europa Galante and Andrea Marcon’s Venice Baroque Orchestra, the English group seemed lifeless here. Over the years, The English Concert has changed little as other performance groups have advanced their own styles. Of the 70 or so recordings the English Concert has made, only two of them feature complete operas.

This concert version of Radamisto was well sung, but the lethargy of the orchestral accompaniment made for a dull affair. Tempi were deadeningly slow. Arias that are particularly stunning such as Tigrane’s Deh, fuggi un traditore, where the urgency of fleeing from the tyrant is a showpiece of virtuosic singing, were not included. The same could be said for Tridate’s Stragi, morti, sangue ed armi where “the trumpet calls out with martial sound” would have had the audience out of their seats.

With so many groups worldwide committed to replicating the glorious performances that made operas by Handel and Vivaldi compelling for their contemporaries, it’s a shame not more have reached American shores.

Stan Metzger