Images of Asia proliferate polygamously — Mughal India, Tokugawa Japan,
and Chinese restaurant chic, tumbled randomly together. The text, of course,
mentions Armenia. Visual indigestion, if you’re culturally aware. But to
Handel and his audiences, specifics didn’t matter. Radamisto is a
morality tale which transcends time and place.
Tiridate (Ryan McKinny) lusts for Zenobia (Christine Rice) who’s happily
married to Radamisto (Lawrence Zazza). To win her he’ll drop his wife
Polissena (Sophie Bevan) and usurp Farasmane’s kingdom (Henry Waddington).
But Zenobia’s having nothing of it. She’d rather die than be unfaithful.
Subplots and complications (they’re all family, for example) are decorative
embellishments. The basic message is surprisingly simple: love overcomes
This fundamental chastity pervades the whole opera. Structurally, it’s
very tight. In neat succession, set piece arias follow one another, allowing
each singer to display his or her vocal virtuosity.Simplicity of form, allowing
inventive elaboration without blurring the basic line. Much like the set
designs. Despite being floridly over the top, these designs are much more
minimal than appear at first.
Christine Rice as Zenobia and Lawrence Zazzo as Radamisto
Lawrence Zazzo’s Radamisto is superb. His tessitura isn’t forced but
flows well, carefully modulated and well-judged, important in a role which
stresses integrity. The extended rhapsody on honour is particularly striking,
decorations extending each word, yet flowing naturally, without affectation.
You marvel at the inventiveness, but also meditate on meaning. Honour does
matter, Radamisto keeps saying as he and Zenobia amply demonstrate. These
aren’t just “words”, dwelling on them serves a moral as well as artistic
The contrast between Radamisto and Tiridate is enhanced counterbalancing
Zazzo’s countertenor with Ryan McKinny’s bass-baritone. In baroque, low
voices often signify villains, but McKinny doesn’t overdo the inherent power
in his voice. Instead he relies on subtle expression, using agile legato. In
any case, refinement enhances the role. Tiridate holds a sword poised to kill
Radamisto, but the long, lyrical elaboration deflects the menace, Reality, in
Handel, is deeper than it seems on the surface.
Christine Rice is exquisitely dignified and gracious. In Carmen,
she seemed inhibited, and even as Ariadne in Birtwistle’s The
Minotaur she didn’t access the kinkier aspects of the role. As Zenobia,
however, she’s ideal. Her patrician reserve perfectly fits the role, so she
can create Zenobia’s compelling beauty with her voice. Sophie Bevan’s
Polissena and Henry Waddington’s Farasmane impressed too. Ailish Tynan’s
Tigrane reached notes higher than might be expected.
Scene from Radamisto
So what was my biggest misgiving about this production? David Alden depicts
Tigrane as a grotesque, a camp cross between Sidney Greenstreet and King
Farouk, but for no conceivable purpose. Is he trying to inject comic humour?
Perhaps it works in a grubby sort of way but it jars with the noble import of
this opera. The whole point, for Handel, was to edify. The idea of morality
trouncing tyranny was inherently racy in a time when absolute monarchy still
held sway. Besides, Tigrane is arguably a hero since it’s he who selflessly
resolves matters. This portrayal is misogynistic and homophobic, completely
pointless. Admittedly it was part of the 2008 Santa Fe premiere but it’s
still deeply offensive and should be dropped.
What Alden lacks in sensitivity, Laurence Cummings made up for with the
orchestra, who played with brio under his direction.
image_description=Ryan McKinny Tiridate and Sophie Bevan as Polissena [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera]
product_title=George Frederick Handel: Radamisto
product_by=Radamisto: Lawrence Zazzo; Zenobia: Christine Rice; Tiridate: Ryan McKinny; Polissena: Sophie Bevan; Farasmane: Henry Waddington; Tigrane: Ailish Tynan. Lawrence Cummings: conductor. Orchestra of the English National Opera. David Alden; Director; Gideon Davey: Designer. Rick Fisher: Lighting. English National Opera, the Coliseum, London. 7th October 2010.
product_id=Above: Ryan McKinny Tiridate and Sophie Bevan as Polissena
All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of English National Opera