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Serious Opera

Grand Theatre
05/13/2000 -  and 24,26, 30 May 2000
George Frederic Handel, Radamisto
David Walker (Radamisto), Alice Coote (Zenobia), Helen Williams (Polissena), Emma Bell (Tigrane), Gillian McIlwraith (Fraarte), Michael John Pearson (Titidate), Bruce Budd (Farasmane)
Harry Bicket (conductor), Tim Hopkins (director)
Opera North Orchestra

Radamisto, written in 1720, was Handel's first conventional opera seria or "heroic" opera, a high drama on the themes of tyranny, love and honour that looks forward not only to Rodelina and Giulio Cesare, but also to La Clemenza did Tito, the . Its action, based on an episode in Tacitus, focuses on the great emotions of royal characters -- no magic fountains or comic servants, not even a chorus -- and evolves in the conventional plot-advancing recitative and reflective or confrontational arias. The characters work over their situations in music that is almost (mutatis mutandis) Shakespearean in its rhetoric, or, perhaps, in its obsession with death and pain, like the conversations in one of Resnais' grimmer films.

The overall structure of the opera is almost obsessively symmetrical: it begins with Polissena lamenting her husband's Tiritade unfaithfulness and ends with her raising an army to knock some sense into him; Zenobia, the object of Tiridate's desire, asks to be killed to resolve the situation -- he is beseiging her husband Radamisto's kingdom -- near the start of the first act, in the second act when they have escaped from Tiridate and she actually goes ahead and jumps in a river, and just before Polissena intervenes at the end. Zenobia and Radamisto each believe the other is dead, and Tiridate's sidekicks Tirgrane and Fraatre each fall in love with one of the heroines but are moved to generosity when their love is not returned. Yet it develops in a stately, moving progression that explores all the emotional possibilities for a group of honourable people abused by a tyrant.

Tim Hopkins' new production for Opera North depends on the ability of the singers to deliver the drama, not on any big extraneous idea, and they certainly did. The costumes set and lighting evoke a black-and-grey expressionist Star Wars setting that seems about right in the way it evokes oppression in a timeless context. (The action is explicitly set long ago and far away. The effect in the uber-roccoco of the Grand Theatre is rather strange, but that also seems about right.) Hopkins broke another of Dr Repertoire's rules and staged the overture with a pantomime of the complete action that didn't quite get it right. After that, however, the singers generally stood and delivered in style.

Helen Williams was a passionate Polissena, with a deceptively sweet voice that reached moments of searing emotion and intensity. The production brought here on as a warrior queen at the end, which wasn't quite convincing, but her ability to shame Tiridate into remorse was. Alice Coote has a rich mezzo that gave Zenobia's coloratura passages more than a touch of Amastris or Bradamante (a point reinforced by her ladylike trousers-and-tunic costume). She too was often very moving. Emma Bell and Gillian McIlwraith were also excellent and stylish in the two real trouser roles.

Michael John Pearson was a blustery Tiridate, definitely nasty and spot on musically. David Walker sang in style, often superbly, but he came up hard against the expressive low passages that Handel wrote for Senesino. Coote, in contrast, was superb in the Zenobia's similar music, though Walker stood up well in his duet with her. Bruce Budd sang manfully in the thankless role of Farasmane, who is there mainly to be threatened with death every few minutes.

Harry Bicket and the Opera North Orchestra delivered state-of-the-art Handel playing with a beautiful clarity and sense of texture. Somehow the instruments matched the voices so well that it was possible to tell which singer would come in next from the timbre of the introductions. Altogether a well thought out, well made and beautifully performed production that could usefully transfer to the ENO.

H.E. Elsom



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