Review: London, Handel, and David Alden – “Radamisto” at English National Opera, October 13, 2010

[Note from William: This report on Handel’s “Radamisto” at English National Opera in London, is the last in the series of four reports I have posted on performances I attended in Great Britain and France in early October 2010.]

Handel operas are performed because of their music, rather than their dramatic content.  A Handel opera’s libretto’s construction is formulaic, often observing rules obscure and irrelevant to us. The inevitable happy ending often seems inappropriate to the dramatic events of the previous scenes. But even if it is Handel’s music that we value, the words that Handel set to music, and the emotions they express, make an impact on us.

[Below:  a leaf from the Hamzarama, commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, a work that influenced the production of “Radamisto”; resized image of a Christie’s catalogue photograph, from]

For many decades, individual Handel arias were performed in concerts, separate from the operas from which they were extracted. But because each aria has dramatic value in itself, and a string of arias in their original context has a power that transcends each individual aria, we began to understand the power of a Handel opera, whether or not we relate to the opera’s plot.

Handel’s Operas in Contemporary Performance

The idea of presenting the early 18th century operas of George Frideric Handel as theatrical experiences to be enjoyed by modern operatic audiences would not have seemed a promising prospect even three decades ago. There were formidable obstacles to performances for general, rather than niche, opera audiences.

First, there was a mismatch between the voices the operas were written for and the kinds available in, say, the mid-2oth century. Second, the operas appeared to be out-of-fashion classical stories delivered in a seemingly static style.  And above all there was a lack of knowledge by either operatic producers or their audiences as how even to relate to the operas. These things can happen when operas lay unperformed for a couple of centuries. But now most of Handel’s operas are performed with increasing regularity.

In the brief history of this website, I have reviewed “Rodelinda (2005)”  and “Ariodante (2008)” at San Francisco Opera, “Tamerlano (2009)” at Los Angeles Opera and “Xerxes” at Houston Grand Opera (2010). My colleague Tom has reviewed the same production of “Radamisto” discussed here at Santa Fe Opera (2008).

[Below: David Alden; resized image of  a Mikhail Rashkovsky photograph, from the Israeli Opera.]

This is my second review of a David Alden Handel production, a half decade after a “Rodelinda” at the San Francisco Opera. The group of Handel productions that I have reviewed  includes, besides Alden, two of the most celebrated theatrical geniuses of our times, John Copley (Ariodante”) and Sir Nicholas Hytner (“Xerxes”). The creative team for  the “Tamerlano”, led by Chas Rader-Shieber, does admirable work as well.

21st Century Handel

When the artistic team for a modern opera company mounts a Handel opera, that team considers first how the music is to be sung and played. But once they’ve decided what type of voices will sing each role and the type of instruments of which the orchestra will be comprised, then one has a good idea of what  the audience will hear.

Concurrently with the musical decisions, it must be decided what the audience will see. For “Radamisto”, Alden appears to have adopted two strategies. One is to advance fanciful set design ideas (by Gideon Davey) that make no pretense of identifying a specific historical time period for the story, but are eyecatching and exotic. The second is to build a dramatic flow for a “once upon a time” presentation of the events in the opera.

[Below: one of Gideon Davey’s fantasy sets for the second act of “Radamisto”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

I can imagine Alden and Davey having sent scouts to the Middle East collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to get ideas for staging this opera about the royal families of Ancient Armenia and Thrace, and becoming enthralled instead by the colorful images in the museum’s collection of Hamza illustrations created in 16th century Mughal India.

Davey’s second act sets are quite specifically inspired by the paintings, dating from the 1550s (now in the V and A Museum) that the Mughal Emperor Akbar commissioned to illustrate the fanciful epic, the Adventures of Amir Hamza. If one determines to present “Radamisto” as a fairy tale rather than a documentary about actual people that the Roman historian Tacitus has mentioned, then why not costume the royal couples Radamisto and Zenobia, Tiridate and Polinessa as the kinds of people Amir Hamza might have come across on his travels?

The characters in his “Radamisto” production are not just costumed as Mughal fantasy figures, they act as if they stepped out of the Hamzarama. Radamisto carries a quiver of arrows on his back. A giant dragon encased in a wall exhales a giant flame. A leopard that Tiridate has shot, hovers in the sky filled with arrows.  Zenobia, like Cleopatra, is hidden in a carpet from which she emerges when it is unrolled. The mysterious koken-like figures dressed in black are like magical spirits who work for or against different characters.

But whether or not the director’s intent was to link the story of Radamisto’s struggles with Tiridate to Hamza’s journey, he clearly intended to introduce to the Handelian stage images of peacocks, leopards and dragons, and the iridescent colors that Akbar’s artisans created. Other images, such as the costuming of General Tigrane in a fatsuit, an obvious homage to Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca (but with Groucho spectacles and moustache), are more of a stretch, but do not make the total impression less exotic.

[Below: General Tigrane (here, Heidi Stober, lower level) goes against his orders to support Zenobia (here, Deborah Domanski, upper left) and Radamisto (here, David Daniels, upper right); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]

The task of the producer of a Handel opera is to build on the inherent emotion of each aria and the power of the dramatic context to create a satisfying experience for the audience. David Alden’s direction creates a taut, dramatic flow, both during and between the succession of enrapturing arias. Ninja-type koken are employed as warriors, stealthy guerillas, and sometimes casualties of battle. Motivations are at times mysterious, but something is happening at all times to draw our attention and often our approval. (For additional photographs of the production from the 2008 Santa Fe Opera Festival, see: Recapitulating Santa Fe’s 2008 Summer Season – Part II.)

The Vocal Performance

Of the six named roles in “Radamisto” five must be considered principal roles, with the sixth role (Farasmane, the father of Radamisto and Polinessa) a comprimario role who has an important aria. The title role was sung by Lawrence Zazzo, whose powerful countertenor is a mainstay of the English National Opera baroque operatic performances. (His counterpart in Santa Fe had been the estimable David Daniels, so now two of the brightest countertenor stars are associated with the production.)

[Below: Radamisto (Lawrence Zazzo) is unable to fulfill the wish of Zenobia (Christine Rice) that he kill her; resized image, based on a Alastair Muir photograph for the English National Opera.]

The one performer that had been cast in both the Santa Fe and London stops for the production was Christine Rice, the Zenobia, but she had to withdraw from the entire Santa Fe run because of illness. In London, she displayed a healthy mezzo with a soft, caressing vibrato with both power and the coloratura flexibility needed for this role.

[Below: General Tigrane (Ailish Tynan, center) re-unites Polinessa (Sophie Bevan) with her brother Radamisto (Lawrence Zazzo; resized image of a Clive Barda photograph, courtesy of the English National Opera.]

In an opera in which every other character is reacting to one man’s villainy, the villain can emerge as an audience-pleasing antihero. One of Europe’s leading basses, Luca Pisaroni (who has become a popular favorite in the United States), had assayed the role in Santa Fe. A young American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny, whose work in both smaller and principal roles I have reviewed in Houston and Los Angeles (see for example, Domingo’s Towering “Tamerlano” Bajazet: Los Angeles Opera – November 22, 2009) was a masterful Tiridate, in his most important role of his career to date.

[Below: Ryan McKinny is Tiridate; resized image, based on a Clive Barda photograph, courtesy of the English National Opera.]

The three other members of the cast included Sophie Bevan, who sparkled in the coloratura role of Polinessa. Ailish Tynan was an impressive Tigrane. Farasmane was competently sung by Henry Waddington. Lawrence Cummings was an authoritative conductor. The opera was sung in English in a translation from the Italian by Christopher Cowell.

David Alden has been one of the pioneers in developing productions of Handel’s operas. His contributions have advanced the cause of baroque opera.