As drama, Radamisto looks forward to later opera seria, as far even as Mozart, and as a result is more dramatically effective than almost any other Handel opera seen recently in London.
The patched up finale may induce the odd groan but there are scenes of genuine theatrical intensity which bring to mind Idomeneo and La Clemenza di Tito and, for once in a Handel opera, the plot matters.
The scene halfway through the second half where Radamisto appears in disguise before his wife Zenobia and the tyrant Tiridate – the wife recognises the husband but the interloper, intent on ravishing her, does not – sets up a dramatic tension which is spellbinding, especially in David Alden’s typically idiosyncratic new staging (a co-production with Santa Fe Opera).
Alden sets the first third of the opera so far forward that the cast are virtually glued to the proscenium line, everything resembling a 2-D picture book until eventually the set rolls back and we see the depth of the stage. Even then, Gideon Davey’s sets tend towards stylish simplicity, all glittering surfaces clashing with eastern tapestries. It’s a far cry from Alden’s previous Handel outing in this house (Ariodante) when he cluttered the stage with all sorts of paraphernalia.
On paper, it should be dull but Alden’s production rivets throughout, not least from his masterly handling of the singers. He gets away with actions that might look ridiculous in lesser hands (a man scuttling across the stage on his face, riddled with arrows like Kurosawa’s Macbeth, raised not one unwanted titter from the first night audience).
A few moments of well-placed levity aside, Alden plays it pretty straight and he’s served by a superb cast. It’s good to see Christine Rice freed from male attire – earlier Handel appearances in the house included a suave, moustachioed Arsace in Partenope and an hilarious grubby oik of a Nero in Agrippina - and her earnest, committed Zenobia is rewarded with some of the loveliest arias of the evening, which she delivers exquisitely.
Counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo is superb in the title role and there’s an impressive ENO debut from Ryan McKinny as a tall and sinister Tiridate. Ailish Tynan is equally good as a roly-poly, fezzed-up Tigrane, her soprano as incongruous for a wily warrior as her squat, bespectacled Sydney Greenstreet get-up. If Sophie Bevan’s Polissena doesn’t sparkle quite as much as her colleagues, she has fine moments.
The da capo arias never outstay their welcome and the running time (some two and half hours of music) is shorter than for most Handel operas. There’s not a moment of tedium to be had and, once again, ENO proves itself peerless in this repertoire.
It’s surprising that Radamisto hasn’t reached us sooner. It contains some truly glorious music and Handel specialist Laurence Cummings and the ENO Orchestra make a major contribution to a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
- Simon Thomas