Gloom descends on St Martin’s Lane

… and I’m not referring to the need to discount the tickets desperately in order to fill the great barn that is the Coliseum.  Radamisto is Handel in “17 Variations on a Theme of Woe” mode.

The performance was led with great drive and instrumental colour by Laurence Cummings, attempting to inject the drama so lacking on the stage.   Much of the blame for that – when it isn’t Handel’s – rests with a rather dull, lazy production by David Alden.

Act 1 was played almost entirely against huge walls of pink/black oversized flock wallpaper, which meant that the long, meandering, “my turn, then your turn” style of Handel’s construction was accompanied by a minimum of additional enlivening activity.  Some dying warriors sloped onto stage during a couple of later numbers, providing something against which characters could react, which helped.  Finally, Zenobia found herself entwined a couple of times in billowing black fabric which covered the stage, an effect which wasn’t entirely successful and made us more aware of the ‘how it was done’ than is needed for the effect to work properly.  In the main, though, there was little the singers could do but stand and deliver, perhaps with a bit of thrusting against the scenery for effect.

The second half was less static, with a huge mirrored curved wall, a throne and dais, more variety of entrances and exits, and generally more dynamics.  Oh, and a bit of flame from a giant ornamental dragon which didn’t really illuminate anything.  It was the act in which Handel took flight as well, with generally more variety and a lively interaction between characters as they debated kingship and justice.

This emphasis on liveliness is relevant because the material is one aria after another on a theme of gloom, doom, injustice, the preference for death over continued tortured existence, the fates and their choices, and … oh well, you get the picture.  Some are enchanting, some are uninspiring, a few are repetitive.   When it enchants, it certainly does.  When it’s repetitive, it certainly drags.

The performances?  Broadly excellent.  Lawrence Zazzo’s Radamisto was astonishing.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a butch countertenor, entirely convincing as the heroic monarch standing up for justice.  His tone was rich and full, and with careful and sparing deployment of his chest voice he let rip a full-blooded assault on baritone Ryan McKinny’s Tiridate in the final scene.  McKinny held his own in an unsympathetic character – one of Handel’s more one-dimensional affairs – who makes a rather unconvincing transition to self-pitying penitent around the time that everyone else perks up for the finale.  The finale is brought about by Tigrane, whom Alden casts as a prissy, camp, little overweight thing, to which Ailish Tynan brought bags of detail and character, certainly in the second half, but she didn’t manage to keep a consistent tone, with some coloratura sounding forced and tone occasionally thin.  The characterisation, however well delivered, didn’t quite work, since it robbed the character of his deus ex machina heroism in raising the army and bringing down Tiridate’s tyranical rule.  It was like a revolution was led by a disgruntled history teacher.

The women were Sophie Bevan and Christine Rice as Polissena and Zenobia respectively.  Bevan had about 40mins of the second half trying to get on stage and being repeatedly chucked off and grunted at by her husband, but sang well.  Rice made repeated attempts at suicide, repeatedly lamented her continuing existence, which despite repetitiveness, she brought a consistent dignity.  She was fabulous in her rich mezzo tone, but a few leaps into higher territory didn’t sound quite so easy.

Overall then, a rather dull production, better in the second half than the first, played with verve and drive, with excellent performances.  There were longeurs, but there were also substantial compensations.  My on-again off-again relationship with Handel continues…

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