<< -- 2 -- Robert Hugill GRIPPING THEATRE
Neither of Handel's two versions of Radamisto is ideal. His second version strengthens the weak Third Act (notably by judicious cutting and introducing the quartet). But this version introduces unnecessary weaknesses into the strong first two acts. Not surprisingly, most people choose to perform an amalgam of the two and that was done here. Unfortunately the programme booklet gave us no explanation of the changes. These were rendered all the more puzzling by the vocal casting. In the first version Handel cast Radamisto as a soprano (the star soprano Margherita Durestanti) and his wife, Zenobia, as an alto. The second version casts Radamisto as an alto (the star castrato Senesino, newly arrived in London) and Zenobia as a soprano (Durestanti reappearing in a different guise). In London both Radamisto and Zenobia were played by mezzo-sopranos (Radamisto by Marijana Mijanovic and Zenobia by Lilian Nikiteanu). Whilst I have few complaints about the musical quality of this casting, I do feel that Handel's needs would have been better served by giving us the contrast in vocal timbre that he obviously desired.
Apart from Mijanovic, none of the cast has obvious baroque music credentials, and most seem to be current members of the Zurich Opera company. But under William Christie's deceptively benign eye, they produced a performance that needed no excuses. In fact, it is a mark of the acceptance of opera seria that it is increasingly possible for companies to mount productions without the need for too many specialist singers.
Radamisto was the first opera that Handel wrote for the fledgling Royal Academy of Music. So it is opera seria at its most serious. Handel's patrons desired opera which dealt at length with noble emotions. So in over three hours of music his noble cast (two kings, one queen, one princess and two princes) is tested in a series of conflicts between love and duty. This is epic theatre, baroque style, with none of the lighter touches that he would bring to his later operas. But in the hands of the Zurich Opera forces, it made gripping theatre.
Copyright © 28 March 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK