(English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire, 13 October 2018)
Baroque naming conventions can be confusing. An opera is often named after the highest-ranking character, or on rarer occasions its protagonist, but English Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s Radamisto leaves you wondering what this prince of Thrace has done to earn to the title role. Surely this should be called Zenobia or Polissena? While the men skulk on the sidelines, Handel (and ETO) give agency to the opera’s two feisty women, who are forced to take the initiative when their menfolk prove unequal to the task. Set in early Christian Armenia, this is a timeless story of how a ruler’s lust can unsettle his judgement and lead his country to ruin – which nevertheless holds out the possibility of change and redemption. Kicking off at the Hackney Empire, and then going on a tour all over England, this is a visually gorgeous production, slightly undermined by an uneven cast.
Tiridate (Grant Doyle), King of Armenia, is having a mid-life crisis and is no longer content with his beautiful wife Polissena (Ellie Laugharne). His eye has fallen instead on Zenobia (Katie Bray), wife of Radamisto (William Towers): prince of Thrace and also, inconveniently, Polissena’s brother. But family ties mean nothing to Tiridate in the heat of his lust. Hoping to capture Zenobia, he sends armies against the Thracian capital and waits for news of its fall. Poor Polissena, rejected and isolated, finds an ally in her husband’s general Tigrane (John-Colyn Gyeantey) who, in the way of these things, has been in love with her for many years. To give Tigrane credit, though, he isn’t one of those blustering generals who can’t take no for an answer: he just wants Polissena to be happy. And there’s precious chance of that at the moment, with her husband trying to get into another woman’s skirts, and her father – the Thracian king Farasmane (Andrew Slater) – held as a prisoner in Tiridate’s palace. Radamisto is now Thrace’s only hope, and Polissena waits with dread to hear the result of her husband’s siege.
Polissena isn’t the only person who resents Tiridate’s ambitions. Zenobia isn’t overly keen either. She has the kind of steely inner strength which her husband Radamisto lacks: when Farasmane is dragged beneath the walls, and Radamisto is invited to exchange Zenobia for his father, it’s Zenobia herself who puts her foot down. If that’s Tiridate’s game, then she’ll kill herself before he ever gets his hands on her. And later, when Thrace has fallen and the couple are running for their lives, it’s Zenobia who decides to finish the game on her own terms. When Radamisto can’t bring himself to kill her, she leaps from a crag into a river below. Her grieving husband gives himself up to Tigrane – but what’s this? Tigrane is actually working for Polissena. He doesn’t want to capture Radamisto, but to help him. And so he offers the Thracian prince a chance for revenge, if he comes in disguise to the palace. Little does Radamisto know that Zenobia is not dead after all, but only wounded, and that by going into Tiridate’s castle he is setting the scene for a grand showdown, which will seal their fates once and for all.
I’d been looking forward to Radamisto, having been left rather cold by Handel’s Solomon at Covent Garden the other day, and visually it didn’t disappoint. Adam Wiltshire designed a simple but very effective set, in which a couple of revolving walls, a row of golden censers, and an unexpectedly three-dimensional rock face help to tell the story, while remaining easily portable (a must for this company). The costumes too were lovely, with long robes, golden embroidery and veils for the women, and full-skirted doublets for the men. Soft golden lighting helped to bind the set together and it looked splendid.
Several of the singers were familiar from earlier productions, but to my surprise it was one I hadn’t heard before – Grant Doyle, the baritone Tiridate – who carried off the laurels for me. His strong, rich voice was full of colour and he performed with such verve that he lacked only a moustache to twirl. A particular highlight was his Alzo al volo di mia fama, complete with horns and all manner of martial delights. His diction was also very clear, a valuable asset in a cast where phrasing was sometimes on the muddy side. His fellow king of pronunciation was Andrew Slater, whom I’d seen in ETO’s Xerxes and Ulisse two years ago, and who finally had enough stage-time here to make an impression. His dignified Farasmane suffers all manner of rough-handling and, although Slater’s singing wasn’t always as characterful as Doyle’s, his strength and clarity were equally admirable.
Unfortunately I wasn’t really won over by either of the other male singers. I’d enjoyed Gyeantey’s turn as Pan in Calisto back in 2016, but had some reservations this time round. He certainly delivered the dramatic goods, giving Tigrane a nobility and morality which eventually formed the opera’s turning point. But I felt his voice wasn’t quite supple enough for the music, and his diction was erratic. Funnily enough I wasn’t all that keen on his Ormisda last year either: it seems that he’s less comfortable with the highly-flavoured later Baroque music, with its complex coloratura. William Towers, as our titular prince of Thrace, had similar problems. Towers has a lovely tone of voice: warm and rich, and capable of hitting all the notes that he asked of it, but his delivery was uneven and those notes weren’t often very stable. You could really tell when he’d been practising something: Radamisto’s signature aria, Ombra cara, was delivered with confidence, but generally he seemed to lack the underlying vocal strength that would have given his singing a firm foundation. As it was, without that anchor, he was often rather wobbly, although I noted that he did better when singing duets, which allowed him to twine his voice around the support of his partner’s. I think it was this vocal uncertainty which added to the impression of Radamisto as a rather weak character.
Mind you, any male Baroque character worth their salt would quail in the presence of a formidable woman, and Radamisto has two to cope with: his feisty Zenobia, and his quieter but equally resolute sister Polissena. I think this is the first time I’ve seen Laugharne since the Adriano in Siria she did with Erica Eloff, which was one of the first operas I saw. I was slightly distracted during her first aria, Sommi dei, by some oddly belcanto moments of phrasing, but she really grew on me during the performance. Mellifluous and elegant, her soprano had a commanding quality which matched Polissena’s growing sense of her own power, which finally brings the unbridled Tiridate to heel. Katie Bray (fittingly) didn’t give her Zenobia the same boyish sparkle as she channelled for her characters in Calisto and Ulisse, instead singing with fierce dignity; though ironically I felt her voice worked best on the slower, more heartfelt arias rather than her more fiery pieces. She is a fine, expressive singer and I look forward to hearing more of her – both her and Laugharne, in fact.
Something of a curate’s egg, therefore, but the fact it’s being performed at all is a complete joy. I should stress that it was cut: the entire character of Fraarte was excised, and I don’t know the full opera well enough to judge how that affected the story, but it didn’t raise any glaring issues with narrative consistency. ETO must be congratulated for putting on these lesser-seen pieces, especially now they’re singing them in the original Italian and giving us the full flavour of Handel’s early brilliance. It’s wonderful to have such things back on the London stage, almost three hundred years after they were first performed. And ETO designs are always beautiful: an example that should be followed by many larger opera companies, who all too often fall back on the monochrome modern-dress approach. ETO’s spring season is even more ambitious, taking in Verdi, Rossini and Mozart – and not just any Mozart, but the infinitely tricky Idomeneo. I’m yet to see a version of that opera which takes my breath away, so I’ll definitely go along and will keep my fingers crossed.