Stylish Performance of Radamisto in London

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Radamisto (revised, 1720 version) Soloists and English Concert/Harry Bicket (conductor), Barbican Hall, London, 10.2.13 (CC)

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

The last few Handel dramatic pieces I have reviewed for this site have come from the London Coliseum: there was Semele in 2004 and Partenope in 2008. Keeping the gap around the four-year mark, along comes a Radamisto, here with a star-studded line-up of soloists over at the Barbican. Performed with such urgency as here, the lack of staging was rarely a problem (except when the plot calls for disguise and of course we see nothing of the sort).

In the programme accompanying this performance the respected critic and writer Richard Wigmore makes a valiant effort at a synopsis of the plot. The story itself has a lineage back to the play L’amour tyrannique by Georges de Scudéry via Francesco Gasparini’s 1710 opera and Domenico Lalli’s L’amor tirannico. Deception, intrigue, disguise and a sudden happy ending are the result in Handel’s Radamisto. Structurally one might point to a surfeit of da capo arias, not enough ensembles, the complete lack of chorus and the sellotaped-on ending. Yet somehow it works – or at least it did in this performance, even with virtually no attempts at staging. And Radamisto is not short, either.

Initially, from a 6.30pm start, we were promised a 9.35pm finish but with one interval. The Barbican changed its mind, whether for reasons financial or otherwise, and the acts were each separated by a break, leading to a 10pm home-time. Those of us who like a bit of stamina involved in our listening plus a leisurely cup of tea before bed would have preferred the initial approach.

It is probably disingenuous to try to make a synopsis of a synopsis here, but suffice it to say that Zenobia is the character married to one of the other characters (Radamisto of Thrace and of the opera’s title) but desired by Tiridate, King of Armenia as well as Tigrane. But of course it is not as simple as that, because Radamisto’s sister is Tiridate’s wife. Radamisto has to don not one but two disguises in the central act (ironically he – David Daniels – was the only singer in concert gear, hence the audience titters that he was “unrecognisable” by those around him), firstly as a rank-and-file soldier and then as his own servant, Ismeno. In the course of all this, he has to describe his own death. The “baddie” is Tiridate, Polissena’s husband, who besieges Thrace. The height of his malevolence occurs in the final act, when he agrees to spare lives on the condition that Zenobia yields to him. She doesn’t, there is a rebellion led by Tigrane; in double-quick time, Tiridate repents, Radamisto entreats pardon for Tiridate (who having turned over a new leaf promises to rule with mildness and fairness to all). Cue that utterly unbelievable crash landing of a happy ending.

Handel’s music weaves a spell that enables one to easily tolerate the most ridiculous of story-lines. Despite the international line-up of the soloists, the true stars of the evening were in fact the members of the English Concert, whose stamina was remarkable. Continuo work (including theorbo) was believably paced; obbligato instruments (including two very agile horn players who were equipped with superb lip trills) were remarkable in style and accuracy. The Overture encapsulated their excellence, with its warm-toned oboes, its sprightly fugato allegro and its beautifully balanced slow opening.

David Daniels was not uniformly on top form, particularly in the earlier section of the final act, but his second act “Ombra cara di mia sposa” was simply mesmeric. It is one of the longer arias (not too far short of ten minutes), and here cast its spell long, effectively taking the opera up to another level. Luca Pisaroni’s Tiridate was the most convincing characterisation of the evening, his diction beyond reproach throughout. His voice has much depth to it, too; it was difficult to imagine him being overshadowed.

For sheer immersion in a role, though, the standout cast member was Elizabeth Watts for her Tigrane. Her way with Handel’s starry passagework was a joy to experience, as Watts put her whole body and soul into the vocal fireworks. Brenda Rae enjoyed Polissena’s aria, “Barbaro!”, without doubt; her ringing soprano added another dimension to the vocal colours on offer. Robert Rice had the smallest part of all (as King Farasmane, Radamisto’s father) but absolutely made the most of his aria.

Patricia Bardon was a beautiful and radiant Zenobia, her lyrical, internal turmoil suggested underneath long legato lines. She was the epitome of regal control, a control mirrored by her phenomenal technical skills. More, she lived the part from first to last.

It felt a privilege to experience this score under such sure direction. Harry Bicket’s stylish contributions and sure sense of flow played the major part in ensuring the opera’s convincing ongoing trajectory.

There was, as well, a pre-concert concert given by the University of Birmingham’s Centre for Early Music Performance and Research in collaboration with the English Concert and Harry Bicket at 5.15pm. It was a lovely idea to give some young talent a chance and to provide a pre-echo of the drama proper. Four scenes from the second act were presented. Students took the vocal parts, and all acquitted themselves well. Lauren Morris was a strong Zenobia (her cavatina “Quando mai, spietata sorte” was lovely), but she herself was sclipsed by the spectacular technique of Holly Singlehurst’s Tigrane (in the aria, “La Sorte, in Ciel, Amor”). The anguish of Polissena’s “Che farà quest’alma mia” was not quite conveyed by Isabella Valentini, though; it was left to Emily Tidbury and Lauren Morris to wrap up the taster with the gorgeous duet, “Se teco vive il cor”. As a whetter of the appetite, this was a remarkably successful ploy.

Colin Clarke