When the Theater an der Wien’s in-house magazine featured an article about costumes created by none other than Christian Lacroix for this new production of Radamisto, I was intrigued by the pictures, but also a bit nonplussed by the idea that his gowns had been hand-painted in order to illustrate the different levels of Radamisto’s nightmare. While handling an emotionally-charged family issue might well be termed a nightmare, the idea of placing this outright in a dream setting seems too far-fetched to work, even if magic and sorcery are indeed a part of many Handel operas (as in Rinaldo or Alcina). Handel was, after all, also capable of being a down-to-earth entertainer who portrayed gods with very human traits (as in Semele).

Director Vincent Boussard only confirmed these expectations of an over-intellectualized concept that has little to do with the story told and hampers the interaction between the protagonists. In his production, the main focus is on Freudian dream symbols, depicted using fish and an umbrella, and which occupy an otherwise empty stage by set designer Vincent Lemaire. When the title hero is sent running around in circles in search for an exit to his hopeless situation, he sees none (despite there being three doors in the backdrop), just video projections of fish or knives dropping from a tablet, or the tablet held in his face as a mirror. This makes sense after reading the programme and when the development of the character becomes clearer, but with nothing else going on it makes for a rather long evening visually.

In the libretto, Zenobia would rather die than be delivered to Radamisto’s brother-in-law Tiridate, who is lusting after her and therefore has gone to war with Radamisto. As her husband is unable to kill her she jumps into a river, only to be rescued and brought before Tiridate. The obligatory lieto fine comes with the intervention of Tigrane, and after some confusion Tiridate returns to his wife Polissena, and Radamisto and Zenobia are reunited. While this is indeed a complicated plot, it is no excuse for a nihilistic staging, as many successful productions of the similarly difficult Tamerlano proved around the world during the 2008/2009 season. So one lesson one might draw from this is that when a libretto seems impractical, it needs a practical approach to make it less nebulous. German-style conceptual productions are as capable of producing this as traditional productions – and in all too many instances do it in a much more intelligent, thought-provoking and indeed entertaining manner. But in this case having Radamisto wandering around in an imaginary aquarium seemed a totally empty gesture.

A contrast to the atmosphere was provided by the Freiburger Barockorchester, which played with respectable accuracy and drive. But while the drily academic approach of René Jacobs worked very well for the more complicated parts like the ensemble pieces (like the Radamisto-Zenobia duet or the quartet before the finale), one couldn’t help thinking that his prescriptive style sometimes constrains the singers. In this production, the singers (mainly David Daniels in the title role and Patricia Bardon as Zenobia) did not always respond comfortably to the tightness of his strict tempi. One remembers these two singers as perfection from the house’s huge success that was Pierre Audi’s and Christophe Rousset’s Partenope in 2009, and this performance didn’t live up to it. That said, the performances were engaging, with Daniels providing some magical moments and Bardon tackling her coloratura parts with aplomb. Sophie Karthäuser credibly portrayed Polinessa with clear tone and maidenly grace, but the most memorable performance was given by Florian Boesch, who sang Tiridate as an unpredictable and behaviour-disordered Nero. But while it is always a joy to have him on stage, his standout performance may also be owed to some musical liberties that Jacobs granted him (he was also seemingly the only one to receive any guidance from dramaturg Barbara Weigel). Jeremy Ovenden made a decent impression as an agile Tigrane, as did Fulvio Bettini whose role as Radamisto’s father Farasmane consists of little more than recitatives.

All in all, the musical part of the evening compensated for sitting in the dark watching a dark stage with ubiquitous yellow goldfish for three hours. There was much applause for the singers and the orchestra, and that might have been in part because of the finale, which showed how much better the performance could have been even within the limits of this production: the dream symbols (notably the table that Tiridate had previously been dancing on) were effectively removed from the stage and with finally some light (including candles that conceivably stood for enlightenment and life), one was finally able to see the artful costumes in all their splendour.