Handel’s opera Radamisto received a welcome staging at the English National Opera last Thursday, following on from their successful productions of Agrippina and Partenope in recent years. First performed at the King’s Theatre Haymarket in 1720, Radamisto was the work with which Handel launched his new opera company Royal Academy of Music (nothing to do with the college of the same name) and it was immediately revived in subsequent seasons. (This production is based on the revised version). It may not be as grand or showy as his later works such as Ariodante, Alcina or Giulio Cesare, but it was a significant achievement in the composer’s early career in London and musically this performance did it full justice.

Clive Barda
Clive Barda

This production, directed by the acclaimed David Alden, originated in 2008 at the Santa Fe Opera. The story is loosely based on a historical account by Tacitus: the tyrant King Tiridate of Armenia (whose wife Polissena is Radamisto’s sister) invades Radamisto’s Thrace because he fancies Zenobia, Radamisto’s wife. After many twists and turns (with Tiridate’s ally Tigrane pulling strings behind the scenes), the constancy of Radamisto and Zenobia wins, Tiridate repents and a happy end ensues.

Such an improbable plot is typical of baroque operas and although it may seem farcical to modern audiences, it is important to note that Handel composed it as an opera seria. In that sense, my main objection to David Alden’s direction is that he made the character of Tigrane into a buffo role, which I consider neither appropriate nor necessary. On the other hand, I acknowledge that such a ‘reinterpretation’ provides an additional spice theatrically and it makes the story more palatable to modern audiences.

Musically, there was some glorious singing from the strong cast. In the title role (which was sung by the renowned Senesino in the 1721 revival), the countertenor Lawrence Zazzo shone with his silky and rich tone, technical finesse and his wonderful expressivity of the text. Christine Rice, well known for her male roles in previous ENO Handel productions, portrayed his loyal wife with nobility and dignity. She excelled both in the lamenting arias as well as the defiant arias. The rising American bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (Tiridate) seemed a little nervous at the beginning, but gradually gathered confidence, and ENO Young Singer Sophie Bevan was vocally impressive as his suffering wife. Ailish Tynan played the comical Tigrane with character, showing off her high coloratura and audacious ornamentation, but she sometimes struggled to keep together with the orchestra.

The sets and costumes, designed by Gideon Davey, displayed a curious mix of Orientalism and abstraction. In each scene, large abstract wall structures were moved around to create different spaces (it reminded me of the recent Alden Katya Kabanova production at the ENO which used similar devices) and Rick Fisher provided effective lighting. The colourful costumes seem to suggest a variety of Oriental references: Turkish, Persian, Indian, Mongolian and Chinese to name a few! I assume that the director was trying to create an imaginary land somewhere in the East, but I felt the mishmash of imagery was confusing and unhelpful.

In the pit, the accomplished Handelian Laurence Cummings lead a lively ensemble, pacing the music brilliantly and supporting the singers with care. If the second act duet by Radamisto and Zenobia didn’t quite reach its emotional heights, the quartet in the penultimate scene was finely handled and created a musical climax. With Radamisto, English National Opera has added another winner to their string of stylish Handel productions.