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Spiritual truth


WILFRID MELLERS discusses Opera North's production
of 'Radamisto'

It was only a dozen years after the creation of his dazzling oratorio Il Trionfo del Tempo e della Verità, that Handel, approaching the peak of his fame, was in London with the canny intention of selling Italian opera seria, in Italian, with singers with the charisma and earning power of pop-stars, to the rising English bourgeoisie, who could well afford it. This heroic form of theatrical art had conquered the aggressively capitalistic centres of Europe (especially in Italy and France) because it epitomized the triumph of Man in the Highest. 'Seriously' heroic operas dealt with Very Important Persons who claimed to control the destinies of burgeoning mercantile societies; but the point was that their control was bound to be arbitrary because humanly imperfect, the state of man being, in theological terms, a Fall. Enlightened optimism was thus paradoxical: as was evident when Handel's Radamisto was first performed at the Haymarket Theatre in 1720, before a modish and enthusiastic audience prepared to recognise, in the sequence of theatrical events, problems and perturbations not unrelated to those of the Hanoverian succession, subtly enriched by recollections of the exiled Stuart King James II, still revered by many valetudinarian disciples. While such political undertones must have made the increasingly powerful English middle class feel fairly, if not very, important, they were less potent than the general principles the boy Handel had adumbrated in his apprentice oratorio: for Enlightened Man in Europe genuinely hoped, and possibly even believed, that Reason could and would efface chaos.

Although the evidence provided by frantic tussles between conflicting tyrannies was hardly encouraging, to despair would be craven, unworthy of potential heroes. A few generous and enlightened humans maintained that newly rational man ought to be able to create paradise on earth - a notion that power-addicts and hoi polloi alike tended to subvert. In retrospect, one can understand why opera seria became so fanatically stylized an art: it was always a game of let's pretend, proffering hopeful stances and noble gestures that ought to come true but, given the facts of human nature, probably won't. In Radamisto the unequivocal goodies are the Hero himself, a usurped monarch, and his wife Zenobia: while the leading baddy is the usurper Tiridate, whose Wife, Polissena, happens, with emotionally fuddling consequences, to be Radamisto's sister.

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Copyright © 20 May 2000 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK


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