Semi Subverted Seria
To the modern listener, opera seria, such as Handel’s “Radamisto,” can feel like the operatic equivalent of old English poetry. It's important historically, but with its strict formalism, repetition and structure, and an unbelievable and convoluted storyline, it often doesn't lend itself to easy enjoyment by a broader audience. If technically excellent, as is a sonnet, its dominant pattern of rigidly alternating arias and recitativos may well appeal to the aficionado, like poetry appeals primarily to poets, but not always to the wider listening public. Something director Wayne Jordan attempts to address with his gently subverted approach in Northern Ireland Opera and Irish Chamber Orchestra’s “Radamisto.” Making his operatic directorial debut, Jordan attempts to subvert “Radamisto” by introducing what could arguably be elements from opera buffa. But this revised take doesn't subvert far enough, and all too often fails to elevate “Radamisto” above the mildly interesting. Still, it does more than enough to retain attention and, with some first class singing and music, can, on occasion, be sublime.
First produced in 1720, with a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, here in an English translation by Christopher Cowell, “Radamisto” sees Thrace, and its king Farasmane, besieged by the Armenian king, Tiridate. Once in control of the city, Tiridate holds the king’s son, Radamisto, captive under penalty of death unless Zenobia, Radamisto’s faithful wife, agrees to marry him. Throw in a loyal General and an abandoned wife and moral outrage ensues. Over the course of over two and a half hours characters travel along an unsteady path of unconvincing trails, escapes and tribulations, all resolved in a hurried and heavy handed, happy every after.
Under Jordan’s direction, there’s an otherworldly disconnect between the staged visuals and “Radamisto’s” original music and story, which Kevin Tracey’s lighting design, from lanterns to flickering overheads, plays with beautifully. This sense of otherworldliness also provides a jumping off point for set and costume designer, Annemarie Woods. Wonderfully evoking a hidden world buried within a subterranean cave at the end of a long, dark tunnel, inhabited by what appear to be the dusty, discarded, poor relations of the Addams Family, Woods’s visually imagery is delightfully playful and utterly captivating. Indeed, its heightened costumes and masks seem to reference the commedia style, and along with Jordan’s tongue in cheek subversion of “Radamisto’s” heroes into broad, comic characters, seems to hint of opera buffa staging, with a rather diminutive, frail looking Radamisto, armed with an apology of a sword, undermining the notion of hero.
Jordan understands staging is about artifice, about effective composition, eyes looking where they need to look, usually, with opera seria, front and centre stage during the preponderance of solos. But here he tries mix things up a little, most notably with the inclusion of a non-singing, tuxedo clad, multi-tasking actor, reminiscent of Mikel Murfi in “The Last Hotel.” Puppet master, waiter, director, stage hand, cast member, builder, and destroyer of cities, The Actor, played by Michael Patrick, reinforces Jordan’s attempts to challenge rigidity and inject some playful, subversive energy into proceedings as he bounds about the stage with balloons and banners. But old opera habits die hard, and all too often Jordan reverts to standing soloists safely front and centre, crafting soft moving tableaux which no amount of heads and arms being tilted and turned can sustain visual interest in for the duration. Performances run the uneven spectrum from the serious to the comic, with some, like the Joker-like king, Tiridate, and his waddling side-kick, General Tigrane, seeming to enjoy Jordan’s playfulness and injecting some much needed humour.
Where “Radamisto” cannot be faulted is in its excellent cast of singers. Mezzo-Soprano, Doreen Curran, as the hero Radamisto, Mezzo-Soprano, Kate Allen, as Tigrane, and Baritone, Adrian Powter as Farasmane, are each an audible delight. Richard Burkhard’s resonant baritone is mesmerising, as is his delightfully cartoonish, over the top portrayal of king Tiridate. Soprano Aoife Miskelly’s hard done by Polissena is beautifully evoked, as is the Mary Pickford/Lillian Gish lookalike Zenobia, beautifully realised by Soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, with both sopranos delivering some exquisite, vibrant solos throughout. Conductor David Brophy conducts The Irish Chamber Orchestra with aplomb, with répétiteur Julian Perkins fulfilling harpsichord duties par excellence.
'Ombra cara' aside, there’s a reason why you don't often see excerpts from “Radamisto” on too many popular 100 Great Opera collections. Its restrictive formalism is not for everyone. Throughout, there’s a sense that Jordan wants to subvert this formalism, to go all Mystery Science Theatre on “Radamisto” and laugh out loud at its ludicrous libretto and the genre’s pretensions. But he never fully let's go. One wonders what would have resulted had let himself run riot? What would that dichotomy have been, retaining “Radamisto’s” musical and vocal integrity whilst taking its over the top libretto completely over the top? As it stands, “Radamisto” is unquestionably beautiful to listen to, divine to look at, with some sublime singing and music, but it’s inconsistently engaging for not having gone far enough. Yet if it leans too often on the side of caution, “Radamisto” still delivers some deliciously sweet moments. Aficionado or not, there’s plenty here to enjoy.
“Radamisto” by George Frideric Handel, with libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym, produced by Northern Ireland Opera and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, directed by Wayne Jordan, is currently on tour nationally.