Handel: Radamisto

English National Opera

Coliseum, London, 11 October 2010 3 stars

FaustIf we ignore Handel's music, David Alden's staging of Radamisto for the English National Opera might be considered as having merits. Alden is innovative, funny and shocking. However, such attributes can be destructive, if they contradict the dramatic content.

Opinions are divided as to whether Alden destroys dramaturgy or raises theatrical standards. There are those who cannot praise Alden highly enough, but there are also those who are deeply unhappy with his approach. To be more precise, I know people who enjoyed Alden's Radamisto. But I also know people who walked out after the interval (and some even after about thirty minutes into the first act). Comments like 'I never want to see/hear another Handel opera in my life' are worrying and are hardly compensated for by the enthusiasm of Alden's fans.

The action takes place in Asia Minor. The plot is based on a historical event which took place during the wars between Parthia and Armenia (as recounted by the historian Tacitus). Tiridate, ruler of Armenia, falls in love with Zenobia who is married to her beloved Radamisto of Thrace. To get Zenobia, Tiridate invades Thrace. He rejects his wife Polissena, but lusts for Zenobia in vain, so he is intent on killing Radamisto (Zenobia's husband and Polissena's brother). Tigrane, Tiridate's political ally, is in love with Polissena but, of course, in vain. And there is Farasmane, King of Thrace, who is the father of Radamisto and Polissena, and is imprisoned by the invader Tiridate.

Admittedly, this is not what we could deem a jolly plot (even though eventually all ends well). But is it, therefore, necessary to keep darkness/semi-darkness on stage throughout most of the evening? It is also undisputable that love and lust are main themes. However, I question the need for so much physicality (or is it sexual fantasy?). Tiridate's first appearance is on all fours and most of the characters spend far too much time rolling/suffering on the floor.

FaustAnd then there is Tigrane, whose portrayal may be a wink to absurd operatic traditions or to cinematic cornerstones. It is true that the part of Tigrane, Prince of Pontus, was sung by a soprano castrato in 1720. But I see no justification for making a pantomime figure of Tigrane – who is, after all, the character who makes all end well – and thus confusing the audience. All other characters wear robes, fit for ancient and other times. But Tigrane, sung by a soprano, wears a suit, tie, fez and stupid moustache plus s/he is padded to look like an extremely fat woman playing the part of a man. Does Alden direct for his theatre buddies in the know or does he cater for operatic audiences, past and future? In any case, what is the logic for such a characterisation?

Presumably the character of Tigrane is supposed to make us laugh. Was the intent similar, for instance, with dead men dropping around the stage but then crawling out, really fast, with arrows still sticking out from them? Or is this supposed to be shocking?

Alden's fans say that he is ground-breaking in staging Handel operas in English. Where were these fans when John Copley staged Julius Caesar, and later Nicholas Hytner directed Xerxes for English National Opera? Copley and Hytner started with the musical score and stayed with it throughout. On the other hand, more often than is acceptable (to these pair of ears and eyes), Alden's images do not coincide with the music. For instance, the fiery Sinfonia for trumpets and orchestra in bright D major – representing the invasion of the city in the first act – is visualised by three ladders slowly appearing on stage, eventually joined by faceless veiled warriors dressed in black and making some slow-motion stylised movements. Later, during a very lively orchestral passage, servants are scrubbing the floor again in slow motion. Why?

As with so many Handel scores, Radamisto is a marvel of invention, tradition, contrasting moods and – last but not least – wonderful tunes. One cannot help singing the tunes after the performance (and long after that). Handel was the first composer to use horns in an opera orchestra: their first appearance was in Radamisto and they are very effective indeed.  

Without doubt, conductor Laurence Cummings knows his Handel and humbly respects it. In his hands, the structure is crystal clear – it is rare that one hears hemiolas (a baroque rhythmic cadence) with such clarity – and control over the whole architecture is secure. But Cummings' tendency to rush fast movements and passages is unsettling as he loses rhythmic strength in the process. I cannot but recall the late great Wagnerian Reginald Goodall fondly saying: 'take care of the little notes and the big notes will take care of themselves'. 

RadamistoIt is a credit to the ENO orchestra that they cope admirably with Cummings' almost unplayably fast speeds as well as with all the other material. As in other baroque operas, leader Janice Graham is exemplary in style in her short violin solo. The important oboe solo in Zenobia's Cavatina (Act Two) is excellent and solo cellist David Newby demonstrates (with his contribution to Radamisto's aria 'Cara sposa, amato bene' in Act One) that it is perfectly possible to play in baroque style on a modern cello.

And last but not least, all singers in the cast deliver their taxing Handelian lines admirably. Counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo (Radamisto) and mezzo-soprano Christine Rice (Zenobia) are particularly outstanding but praise is also due to bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (Tiridate), soprano Sophie Bevan (Polissena) and bass Henry Waddington (Farasmane). As for soprano Ailish Tynan (Tigrane): hats off to her for delivering Handel's brilliant musical lines so well in a less than helpful outfit.

I would love to praise the contribution of the chorus. But there was none (although my score clearly specifies tenors, as well as all solo singers, in the final 'chorus'). Nevertheless, full praise to the ENO for fielding such fine singers for their Radamisto.

By Agnes Kory

Photo credits: Clive Barda