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Spiritual truth


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

<< Continued from yesterday

The pretend-heroic story is, as usual, one of war, treachery, and betrayal, ranged against dreams of decency, generosity and hope comparable with those presented, in general terms, in the young Handel's Triumph of Time. The precise formality of the da capo arias, with their dove-tailed sequences and symmetries, combine with theatrically rhetorical devices that accord with the labyrinthine plots and counterplots. We don't need to worry overmuch about human arbitrariness or stupidity, if only because the convoluted intrigues matter less than the dreamy hopes which the human spirit may precariously, and against the odds, sustain. An Age of Enlightenment couldn't believe that evil might triumph, so many operas and dramas resorted to the transparent device of a deus ex machina to put right the mess made by blundering mortals. Radamisto more simply opts for overt wish-fulfillment: because the Good are by definition Right, their values, however improbably, win through. Belatedly acknowledging the blissful logic of Reason, tyrants cease to be tyrannical, and everyone lives, or is given the chance of living, happily ever after. Inevitably, the ultimate triumphs are undermined by wistfulness: which is why the goodies tend to enjoy the ripest fruits of Handel's copious melodic invention. Radamisto's aria, sung when he thinks that his tyrant-threatened wife has committed suicide, is one of the greatest moments in Handel's theatre music, which is saying a lot: a vocal line of serenely diatonic nobility is haloed by chromatically undulating strings that encapsulate fortune's fickleness and fecklessness. David Walker's countertenor, deputising for a castrated male alto, copes with it manfully, if without the ultimate grandeur that such remorsefully tragic music calls for. Alice Coote, as his hard-done-by wife Zenobia, sings as usual with committed passion, faithful to her presumed-dead husband, yet not slickly dismissive of the would-be lovers triggered by his apparent demise. Tiridate, the usurping tyrant, played by Michael John Pearson, has an easier task in being bluffly tyrannical; Polissena, his wife, played by Helen Williams, changes sides with bewildering but all-too-human rapidity, in the process growing both in dramatic status and in vocal virtuosity. Her final coloratura aria is a stunner; and as always Handel provides rewarding opportunities even for minor tyrants and servants. In general, the standard of singing is more than adequate. If not always first-class, it's good enough to persuade us to find it credible that Radamisto can ask Polissena to forgive her brutal husband, if not quite to swallow his confession of errors as a leader and his sins as a human being. Our ultimate homage must be to Handel's genius, which may momently make us believe anything.

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Copyright © 21 May 2000 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK


David Walker as Radamisto. Photo copyright (c) 2000 Stephen Vaughan
David Walker as Radamisto
in Opera North's Spring 2000 production.
Photo Copyright (c) 2000 Stephen Vaughan



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