Wednesday 17 August 2011

A most formal resolution in Thrace

Radamisto, ENO, the Coliseum, London

Handel’s (1685-1759) Radamisto is an arresting set-piece of passion and war in Asia Minor around the first century AD, based on the records of the Roman historian Tacitus. Despite being the title role, Radamisto (a convincing Lawrence Zazzo in the ENO’s recent production), one of the two children of old King Farasmane of Thrace, remains on the periphery of Handel’s opera. Rather than he being the mover of events, things happen to him.

The real action centres on his beautiful and resourceful wife Zenobia (Christine Rice). Radamisto’s brother-in-law, the tyrant Tiridate of the neighbouring Armenia (Ryan McKinny), has fallen in love with Zenobia and is bent on carrying her away as a spoil of war. His own wife, Radamisto’s sister Polissena (Sophie Bevan), he carefully ignores throughout, and she plays a strong role, matched by the almost bafoonish put-upon adviser to Radimisto, Tigrane (Ailish Tynan), an active principal plot-wise, who as it happens is in love with Polissena. This was a well-balanced production from the ENO, conducted by the impressively dogged Lawrence Cummings.

More or less split into two acts of war and peace respectively, the story twists and turns neatly around the intricacies of the two couples, with some comic release from Tigrane and the old King Farasmane making his main appearance at the close. As might be expected from a baroque opera, and Handel’s music is sumptuous, despite the passionate excesses there is formal resolution at the end. Order is restored, the two reunited couples mirroring the restoration of King Farasmane to Thrace and King Tiridate promising no longer to rule as tyrant in Armenia. The only untied end is Tigrane - who is left dangling - his love for Polissena unfulfilled and perhaps not quite fitting into the final order of events: he seems the most mysterious yet most real person of the piece. 

Yet despite the baffling storyline, the overall contours are graspable, and the rich music sweeps the audience along. We are in historical time still well before the various difficulties of form and content faced by more modern composers, and there is something carefree and fresh about Handel’s music more generally, making it easy to warm to. Moreover, as has become expected from the ENO, the set has recognisable élan with a connected lot of moving blocks in black, and big flowers providing interesting arrangements for the characters to move between, hide behind and jump off.

This is throughout a gripping and swiftly moving production, in a way that makes good on much of the genuine excitement of the world in the eighteenth century which was witnessed by Handel, who had by that time moved from Germany to London. This was his first commission for the new Royal Academy of Music, who would have had some sway over the choice of story and its retelling. Yet it is Handel’s music that makes this piece, the bold and subtle harmonies that provide a rich, distinctive world of sound and movement that encloses the audience effortlessly. There is much use of trumpets to play off the busy strings, and a seamless interweaving of voice and instruments throughout. The more formal structure never weighs too heavily, but allows the music to breathe freely with a delicate vigour that at times seems nearly surprising. Handel, a notorious borrower of tunes and themes from his own work, has the tyrant Tiridate singing almost merrily in Act 1’s Stragi, morti, sangue ad armi… (Slaughter, death, blood and arms, with warlike songs now cries the trumpet):

In particular, the devotion of Zenobia to her husband – she twice tries to kill herself to avoid falling into Tiridate’s hands – sticks out stubbornly in a story characterised mainly by variably inept men. King Farasmane can’t quite beat off King Tiridate’s attack himself and is captured by the rival king, whilst Tiridate himself is a tyrant ruling badly over his kingdom and waging a badly judged war out of his desire for another man’s wife, unable to keep his violent passions in check. Radamisto, meanwhile, fails to do very much at all. When Zenobia asks him to kill her with a knife he can’t bring himself to do it, and it is only through being smuggled in as a messenger by Tigrane that he gets access to Tiridate’s court where Zenobia is kept prisoner. He then can’t keep his disguise and is captured, too, only to be saved from execution along with Zenobia by the arrival of Tigrane at the head of an army. Polissena, meanwhile, suffers – her loyalties torn between husband and brother, and well aware of Tiridate’s love for another.

In short, whilst the moral seems that the tyrant is reformed, the message might be more subtle and open to interpretation. A brisk and highly enjoyable opera.


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