London's opera legacy

Handel's Radamisto is heard again in its rightful home after 25 years, writes Helen Wallace

Radamisto, one of Handel’s glorious ‘London’ operas, was the first he wrote for the newly formed Royal Academy of Music, and first performed at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, a stone’s throw from the Coliseum where David Alden’s new production is now on. Overshadowed by his more mature works, it marks the beginning of the composer’s 20-year domination of operatic life in Britain.

Yet this glittering opera was last staged in London a quarter of a century ago. Checking the Royal Opera House archive, I noted that it has never once been produced there in the whole history of the house. Which is something of a scandal, given that Radamisto represents such a rich operatic legacy that belongs to us all. 

Of course, true to tradition, it’s burdened with a pretty silly plot. Set in ancient Thrace, which has been taken by the tyrannical ruler of Armenia, Tiridate (the robust young baritone Ryan McKinny) has fallen for the wife of his brother-in-law Prince Radamisto (the eloquent Lawrence Zazzo). His own wife Polissema (creamy soprano and ENO protégée Sophie Bevan) is caught between husband and brother, while even Tiridate’s comic side-kick Tigrane (a sparkling Ailish Tynan in a fat suit and fez) gets fed up and turns his own army against him.

It’s the sort of opera where everyone stands about singing about killing themselves or each other, but no one does anything of the sort. And it matters not a jot, because the work is a treasure trove stuffed with operatic jewels, set alight by a first-class cast. Zazzo’s ‘Soul and shadow’ was beautifully shaped and affecting; Christine Rice, as his wife Zenobia, threatened to upstage him with her powerful, resonant mezzo on peak form. Their love duet ‘If in you my heart resides’ is really one of Handel’s enduring masterpieces, like the happy (and rare) ensemble piece that ends the work.

Laurence Cummings conducts the ENO orchestra with high-octane verve; they may have imported continuo players, but their own strings and high trumpets were thrilling. The music alone presents something of a sensory overload, so did the staging add anything? David Alden had some clever ideas about orientalism, with a stylish bestiary of ravens, peacocks and a fire-breathing dragon, but the garish pink flock wallpaper was up for too long, and stylised movements became somewhat repetitive. Nevertheless, Alden knows how to frame and pace such a formal, static work, defining its themes of tyranny, love and power with great style and clarity.

As they proved with their recent hit Partenope, English National Opera has shown again it can present Handel with fidelity, passion and 21st-century vitality, fielding its own orchestra and a stellar cast of home-grown singers, raising the roof on what is, after all, one of London’s very own operas.

 

You Tube clip: Countertenor David Sheppard sings an aria from Handel's Radamisto at the ENO's opera preview evening

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine