Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Handel - Radamisto (Belfast, 2017)

George Frideric Handel - Radamisto (Belfast)

NI Opera, Irish Chamber Orchestra, Belfast - 2017

David Brophy, Wayne Jordan, Doreen Curran, Aoife Miskelly, Kate Allen, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, Richard Burkhard, Adrian Powter, Michael Patrick

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 14th May 2017

Although Northern Ireland Opera and Irish Youth Opera collaborated on an Irish tour with Agrippina in 2015, I can't recall that there has ever been a fully-staged Handel opera performed in Belfast. As a possible first then, the opera seria Radamisto is by no means the obvious choice to introduce Handel's operas to a Belfast audience. It's not filled with memorable arias, the music doesn't have the melody and harmony of the composer's best works, and the plot isn't the most dramatic. Without some invention and unless you have some very good singers capable of bringing the roles to life, Radamisto can be a very dry affair indeed. Fortunately the NI Opera production was outstanding not only in its playful direction and superb singing, but David Brophy and the musicians of the Irish Chamber Orchestra also found the beating heart of the work beneath its pounding rhythms.

It's the simplicity of Radamisto's relatively straightforward plot and its refinement down to six principal characters that actually works to its advantage. Although all the figures are all drawn from real-life, there is little of historical accuracy in the Nicola Haym's libretto for the opera. Based on a text, L'amor tyrannico, originally written for the composer Francscso Gasparini by Domenico Lalli, Radamisto is happy to play fast and loose with history in order to put across a direct moral message about resistance to tyranny. That's a message that may have spoken to the audiences of 1720 and perhaps it can still have a message to an audience who has been carefully following the development of world events in the news 300 years later.

In 53 AD however, the tyrant is Tiridate, the ruler of Armenia, who has invaded Thrace and enslaved its king Farasmane, despite being married to the king's daughter Polissena. The reason for this act of aggression however soon becomes clear; Tiridate is in love with Zenobia, the wife of Radamisto, the son of Farasmane and brother of Polissena. Despite the pleas of Tigrane, the Prince of Pontus who is an ally of Tiridate and in love with her, Polissena refuses to renounce her husband. Tigrane nevertheless assists in saving her brother Radamisto from the siege that Tiridate is waging on the city, disguising him and introducing him into the court of the tyrant in the hope of assisting his wife Zenobia, who believes he is dead, and rescue her from the clutches of Tiridate.

The emotional content of most opera seria can be rather generic, with arias often treated as interchangeable by composers (Handel included) who would rework and reuse them in other operas. Radamisto however doesn't seem to manufacture situations to suit the guidelines of emotional trajectory and aria distribution or to meet the demands of the original singers. The familiar complications and conventions of the opera seria are certainly there, with sons seeming to betray their fathers, young love being thwarted by the demands of a cruel and selfish ruler, and a prince believed dead returning in disguise, but they don't seem to be there to provide a series of anguished arias on the cruel twists of fate, love and power. Rather, everything in the opera essentially revolves around the insanity of Tiridate's obsession with Zenobia and Handel uses this one very strong central situation to explore the more uplifting sentiments and human values that it provokes.

I could be mistaken, but I get the impression that this what is alluded to in Wayne Jordan's introduction of a silent actor into the proceedings. Whether it's the intention or not, Michael Patrick's presence, intervention and cavorting fitted in perfectly and served to enliven what might otherwise be a quite static delivery of one recitative and aria after another. Dressed in a modern formal dress suit, quite at odds with the gothic-oriental meets east European puppet-show look of Annemarie Woods' attractive and suitably otherworldly costume designs, it was tempting to see the actor as the director of the proceedings (or indeed the composer himself), intervening and manipulating, placing characters into suitable positions that matched the definable little variations in the detail of Handel's music.

Despite all his efforts to bend the characters to his will, the actor like Tiridate finds that human emotions are not so easily defined or manipulated and seems surprised at how, when placed under such controlling and tyrannical restrictions, they nonetheless manage to resist. And not only resist, but quite inexplicably, despite all that they have been through, they become stronger and still manage to show mercy, understanding and forgiveness. It's a credit to Handel and his ability to overcome the normal restrictions of the opera seria format that the belief in these sentiments doesn't feel forced to suit a moral, but seems to come naturally from the inherent humanity within the characters.

It's there in the music and superbly brought out by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under David Brophy. Using bassoon, oboes, flutes and horns, Handel makes use of a variety of instruments to bring colour to each of the situations that brings a deeper and more nuanced character far beyond the words on the page. Sung in English here, it wasn't always easy to hear the words being sung, but every detail of the situation could be heard if you paid attention to the music. More than just the use of obbligato, it's astonishing how much warmth and emotion can be found in the writing for the instruments that carry the rhythm and recitative. It's rare that individual musicians get a mention in opera reviews, but the contributions of Christian Elliott on principal cello and Julian Perkins on harpsichord were outstanding, playing with genuine feeling that brought out the underlying humanity in the score, not to mention the evident genius of Handel's writing.

The singing carries much the same effect, with a beautiful balance that puts the strengths and predicaments of each of the characters onto an equal footing of conflict. Whether she's singing Bach or Barry, Schoenberg or Mozart, Glanert or Rimsky-Korsakov, Aoife Miskelly never fails to impress, so it was no surprise that her expressive coloratura as Polissena was just dazzling. Originally composed for a soprano, then rewritten for the castrato Senesino, mezzo-soprano Doreen Curran consequently had a very difficult role to fill as Radamisto but managed to bring the full dramatic potential out of the character, working particularly well alongside Sinéad Campbell-Wallace's Zenobia. It's Zenobia who faces the greatest challenges in the drama and it's important that the strength of her resolve remains consistent with her inner humanity in order for the conclusion to be credible, and that was all there in Campbell-Wallace's singing.

The same ability to give an indication of the inner workings of the character and how it is reflected or distorted by their actions is important for all the characters. While the Irish Chamber Orchestra and Michael Patrick helped make this a little more evident, it was also there in Kate Allen's bright Tigrane, in Richard Burkhard's wonderfully sonorous Tiridate and even in Adrian Powter's Farasmane. It's hard to say that the production spoke directly to us about tyranny in the world today, but there was no question that the strengths of this performance proved that Handel's Radamisto still has something meaningful to communicate that resonates 300 years later.

Links: Northern Ireland Opera