Rapturous, Ravishing and Radiant Radamisto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Radamisto: Concert performance from Soloists and The English Concert with Harry Bickett (Director/Harpsichord) Town Hall, Birmingham, 8.2.2013. (GR)

Radamisto, Prince of Thrace, David Daniels
Zenobia, his wife Patricia Bardon
Tiridate, King of Armenia Luca Pisaroni
Polissena, his wife, queen and Radamisto’s sister Brenda Rae
Tigrane, a high ranking Armenian soldier Elizabeth Watts
Farasmane, King of Thrace Robert Rice

Birmingham International Concert Season lived up to its name with a concert performance at the Town Hall on 8th Feb 2013 of Handel’s Radamisto, with a world-class bunch of soloists originating from around the globe.

It is puzzling why Radamisto is not a more popular opera. Composed in 1719 for the newly formed Royal Academy of Musick in London, it has some great tunes, sparkling vocal interchanges and an ‘unjust Amours’ plot – one much easier to follow than in some Handel operas. It was another triumph for Harry Bickett. Since he succeeded Trevor Pinnock in 2007, his stewardship of The English Concert has preserved its reputation and broadened its repertoire. The programme stated the performance was based upon Handel’s Dec 1720 version. However, both synopsis and character list made no mention of Fraarte, Tiridate’s brother; presumably this role had been merged with Tigrane, both sopranos.

After a typical Handelian Act I overture, Polissena’s brief E minor prayer Sommi Dei set the tone; the angst was there but I wondered if Brenda Rae might have made more of the score’s dynamic variations that make it such a striking opening cavatina. Elizabeth Watts as Tigrane then communicated her own overtures to the Queen, but her claim to be a better man than Tiridate was somewhat short in measure. Luca Pisaroni effectively conveyed his tyrannical power with urgency as Tiridate, opening with such hostile phrases as Radamisto oggi la morte. This prompted Rae to take her leave with Tu vuoi ch’io parta, the pangs of concern for her brother sympathetically echoed by the soulful flute of Lisa Beznosiuk. Having shown Farasmane (steadily sung by Robert Rice throughout) that he controlled all the cards, Tiridate triumphantly rubbed it in with Con la strage de’ nemici. Bass-baritone Pisaroni played a compelling baddie, although his tone was one for which you could not help but have a soft spot, an impression accentuated in this number by the ritornellos of Bickett’s ensemble.

The dire circumstances of Radamisto and Zenobia came across in their first duet, followed by David Daniels’ initial aria Cara sposa. Even after a family conference, Radamisto was at his wit’s end. Introduced by the Furies – the tutti strings of the English Concert – Zenobia had the solution, Son contenta di morire. Patricia Bardon showed that she too was a strong character, defiant in the face of danger and content to die, handling the presto pace of her aria with alacrity, nailing the coloratura and delivering an evenness of dynamics throughout her range. This was quite brilliant; the pace was hotting up! This show of resistance from his wife inspired the Thracian prince for his own outburst of heroism in Perfido including an exquisitely held grandi and an expressive tiranno, resolving to live and die bravely. Alla vittoria! was the rousing call to battle stations from Watts, confirmed by the drum roll of Robert Howes and the trumpets of Mark Bennett and Stian Aareskjold. Believing Tigrane had saved her father’s life, the act closed with Polissena’s fugate aria Dopo torbide procelle, her vocal line and lilt deliciously echoed by the Concert strings led by Nadja Zweiner.

Zenobia got Act II off to an emotional start with her cavatina Quando mai spietata sorte. With an opening reminiscent of Ombra ma fu,the oboe of Hannah McLaughlin beautifully complemented the tender, velvety tones of Bardon. The Thracian royal couple bemoaned their cruel fate before the dramatic climax of the opera; Zenobia begged Radamisto to kill her rather than have them succumb to the Armenians. This was the only point where I wished it had been a fully staged production – so good was the sound of this concert performance! Daniels’ sword only scratched Bardon who then attempted to finish it by drowning herself. He believed she had succeeded and launched into a lament for his lost wife Ombra cara, the aria Burney said was ‘the language of philosophy and science, expressing profound personal tragedy’. Perhaps I was expecting too much, but I was a shade disappointed with possibly not enough allegro for the Allegro mà non troppo signature. Also, the generally excellent surtitles had given us the weird ‘Dear shade of my wife’.

However, Tigrane rescued Zenobia, only for her worst fears to be realised: Tiridate wooed her while he had hoped to soften her heart with Si che ti renderai. I thought Pisaroni was a convincing lover and it must have been hard for Bardon to resist his vocal advances, but she did. Baring her soul in Fatemi, oh cielo, here was another heart-reaching example of Handel’s Affekt, aided here by Beznosiuk’s flute and the prominent theorbo of William Carter. Slight confusion perhaps arose when Radamisto next appeared – he was now supposedly in disguise, courtesy of Tigrane. The Armenian soldier then delivered La sorte, il ciel Amor, Watts’ best offering of the evening, her powerful and agile line full of passion for Polissena, supported by the oboes of McLaughlin and Catherine Latham. After the Thracian siblings took their leave, Rae gave a convincing display of duty in Che farà quest’alma, another aria Handel revised for this Dec 1720 edition. The suffering of Zenobia regarding Radamisto’s fate would not be dispelled, but Bardon was so soothing in Troppo sofferse that the audience could not get enough of it. Several ramifications later, Zenobia and Radamisto were reunited, albeit briefly, in their duet Se teco vive encor, the counter tenor of Daniels and Bardon’s contralto blending perfectly in this happy and glorious number to close Act II; their echoed Caro’s danced along and while their lips did get close, they did not touch. The couple’s problems were unresolved.

Act I was good, Act II was better, Act III was best. Tigrane had had enough of the machinations of Tiridate and decided to take arms against him with some more sparkling fioratura and belligerence from Watts in S’adopri il braccio armato. Radamisto again swore his ‘heart’s sweet love’ for Zenobia in Dolce bene di quest’alma, in one of Handel’s favourite 12/8 rhythms, although I thought the balance slightly suspect. Tiridate had a final play for Zenobia but the disguised Radamisto intervened, only to blow his cover – death awaited him. His fiery outburst called Tiridate a coward in life and in death. Polissena agreed and in Barbaro partirò turned against her tyrannical spouse; with much colour and a forceful crescendo, Rae rendered a realistic mixture of disgust and angst. She stormed off, head held high! The two introductory horns of Ursula Paludan Monberg and Martin Lawrence heralded the next number and gave it an immediate bounce. Alzo al volo reminded me of the metaphor aria of the huntsman tracking the scent in Giulio Cesare. Tiridate was still chasing Zenobia but his chances of a kill were zero; Pisaroni earned the cheers he got from the audience for his animated line.

Faced with death or marriage to a despot, the combined Addio of Bardon and Pisaroni was exquisite. The smooth obbligato cello of Joseph Crouch next introduced Zenobia’s memorable Deggio dunque. Constructed in strict opera seria ABA form, for once I would have preferred more A and less B; parting was such sweet sorrow and Bardon’s pain was worthy of any Juliet. The bar had been raised and Daniels cleared it with his response Qual nave smarrita, the counter-tenor’s favourite aria of the opera: ‘Handel at his most genius, just simplicity, that goes right to the core of the soul’. He was as good as his word. However the revolt of Tigrane and his supporters assured a lieto fin and the extended final chorus made the conclusion clear.

Any performance that includes Patricia Bardon is fine by me and surrounded by the truly wonderful cast assembled by Bickett, this was a magnificent evening. The standing ovation was richly deserved.

Geoff Read