Radamisto, English National Opera, ENO at the London Coliseum, October 2010

On 27th April 1720, a month before his sixtieth birthday, King George I attended the opera with his son the Prince of Wales. They’d only recently reunited after not speaking to one another for three years, so this was just the right opera to see. The king, Farasmane and his son Radamisto are in dire danger of losing their lives to the crazily emotional actions of a tyrant, Tiridate, king of Armenia, whose wife is Radamisto’s sister — the names are those of historical figures, but the personalities are not. Moreover Handel wrote this opera for the newly created Royal Academy of Music, whose directors favoured stories of love defeating the naked ambition of a ruthless conqueror.

Zenobia begs Radamisto to kill her

The young queens, Zenobia wife of Radamisto, and Polissena wife of Tiridate, are vital characters in the plot, both beautifully sung by Christine Rice and Sophie Bevan. Radamisto was sung by a woman in the original production, but here we had American counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo who was excellent, and I do prefer such roles to be sung by a man rather than a woman. The other two male singers were superb too. Ryan McKinny sang very strongly as Tiridate, with fine stage presence and excellent diction, and Henry Waddington gave an equally wonderful performance in the much smaller bass role of King Farasmane. The one other character, Tigrane — an ally of Tiridate — was also very well sung by Ailish Tynan. A further role for Tiridate’s brother was cut from Handel’s revised version, which was performed here. Tigrane is infatuated with Tiridate’s wife Polissena, and acts as something of a unifying force, while Tiridate, who’s insanely in love with Radamisto’s wife Zenobia, is purely destructive, “From the hands of those I slaughter I will snatch a victor’s crown”.

Tiridate and Radamisto, all images ENO/ Clive Barda

The trouble with this opera is the weak ending. It builds up to an impossible situation, when suddenly Tiridate’s wife enters to say that his troops are abandoning him, so he admits having behaved very badly and thanks his erstwhile enemies for their kind understanding. Not a brilliant ending, but the music is wonderful and Laurence Cummings conducted with huge enthusiasm and excellent control of the proceedings. Musically this was a real treat.

Radamisto is not often performed, and the first twentieth century revival in Britain was not until 1960. The performance attracted strong applause, as did the new production by David Alden — a joint production with the Santa Fe Opera — apart from objections from a few audience members at the end. I didn’t understand the objections, so I asked one man what he didn’t like about it, to which I got the response that he didn’t like anything about the production. Did he not like the lighting by Rick Fisher? I thought it was wonderful. Did he not like the designs by Gideon Davy? I thought the Eastern style costumes were lovely, particularly Tiridate’s, and as for the late Ottoman white suit for Tigrane, that was obviously meant to be deliberately anachronistic. And the sets? I thought they were super. It’s a colourful production, easy on the eye, and the occasional body pierced by arrows is a reminder that while this family feud goes on, a lot of people die. Not a bad lesson, and remember that this opera’s opening night was witnessed by the future King George II with his music loving father George I, at the conclusion of one of their feuds. Handel had been Kapellmeister to George when he was Elector of Hanover, but then moved to London, so it must have felt like a family reunited when George became King of Britain.

Performances continue until November 4 — click here for more details.

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