United States Handel, Radamisto: Juilliard Opera and Juilliard415, Julian Wachner (conductor), Peter J. Sharp Theater, Juilliard School, Lincoln Center, New York, 20.11.2013 (SSM)
Tiridate: Aubrey Allicock
Polissena: Mary Feminear
Radamisto: John Holiday
Zenobia: Virginie Verrez
Tigrane: Elizabeth Sutphen
Farasmane: Elliott Carlton Hines
Fraarte: Pureum Jo
Direction: James Darrah
Sets and lighting: Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock
Costumes: Sara Jean Tosetti
Handel was a prolific composer of operas: Radamisto, Riccardo Primo, Rinaldo, Rodelinda, Rodrigo, Roxana, and that’s just the Rs. There are even more As (11). All in all, Handel wrote around 40 operas ˗ not as many as Vivaldi, who claimed to have written 94, but a respectable number to be sure.
According to Handel’s early biographer, Charles Burney, Radamisto “was more solid, ingenious and full of fire than any drama that [he] had yet produced in this country.” It was also the first opera in which Handel included horns which gave the music much more color and pomp. Until the final scene when everything that went before is reversed and those who, moments earlier, were at knifepoint now hold hands in happy reconciliation, there is an unrelenting oppressiveness in this opera that is unusual for Handel. There is no comic relief, no momentary bliss when lovers connect, just the continual death threats that never materialize.
The staging was simple but effective. Chairs were used to break up the space and acted as dividers at times. The lighting cleverly created shadows on a scrim as the singers would periodically “disappear” by facing the wall. No hints were given as to time and location, but the costumes would seem to indicate the action takes place during Roman times. There are few references as to what country we are in. Anthony Hicks, in his notes to a recording of this opera, states that the country under siege should be Iberia, while others have situated the events in Armenia.
Tridate, played here with convincing commitment by Aubrey Allicock, was a ruthless tyrant whose only desire was to conquer, be it a new country or the wife of the leader under siege. Allicock’s baritone handled some quite low notes easily, and he had no problems in rising clearly above the orchestral accompaniment. Equally adept as actor and singer, his rock solid performance made him the backbone of this production.
All the other vocalists were strong and got stronger as the plot advanced. The first half of the opera was slow with little in the way of action, while the second half was entirely engrossing. Elizabeth Sutphen as Tigrane started off a little tepidly, but by the second half came into her own. I’ve commented positively elsewhere about Mary Feminear and Pureum Jo, and both were even stronger in this production. Virginie Verrez established herself early on as the strong-willed Zenoba, wife of Radamisto, in the powerful aria “Son contenta di morire.”
Countertenor John Holiday as Radamisto was the surprise of the evening. His rich, natural, unforced voice never sounded false, and the ease with which he expressed all kinds of emotions was wonderful. He performance of the famous “Cara sposa, amato bene” was achingly beautiful as was the similarly paced “Qual nave smarrita.” His voice was equally impressive in arias that required dramatic strength such as the show-stopping “Vile! Se mi dai vita” with it long and difficult melissmas.
Julian Wachner and James Darrah made some smart decisions. They were right to use the second edition of Radamisto, but more importantly they were sensible about including or excluding middle sections and da capos. As beautiful as “Qual nave smarrita” is, it comes late in the opera and would have run a good seven or eight minutes if the repeats hadn’t been skipped.
The Juilliard415 orchestra members did an exceptional job in backing the singers, seldom overpowering them, and the soloists who accompanied some of the arias did so masterfully.
Now that we have lost the New York City Opera as our main source of Baroque opera revivals, we can look forward to the Juilliard Historical Performance and the Opera Studies departments continuing to bring back to life these wonderful but neglected works.