Performances like this highlight the inherent drama in the music.The comparison between this Barbican Radamisto and the ENO staging in 2010 could hardly have been greater. Although unstaged, Bicket’s Barbican Radamisto was far better theatre because the drama was revealed through good singing.
Harry Bicket’s style is understated — I hate using the cliché “English” — but it works well in a medium-sized space like the Barbican. Handel’s plot may be outrageously exotic, but here the focus was on the characters as human beings, despite the implausible situations in which they find themselves. This isn’t historical drama. Most of us wouldn’t recognize first century Armenia if we tried. At heart, Radamisto is about a family and their power struggles, and the ultimate triumph of married love.
Bicket’s restraint allows the singers to demonstrate the elaborate vocal technique that Handel’s audiences would have thrilled to. Part of the drama in Radamisto is marvelling how long a singer can sustain a line, or decorate a vowel in myriad repeats. Radamisto and Tiridate are duelling with their voices: oneupmanship through trills. David Daniels was particularly effective, showing the gentle side of Radamisto . His “Cara Sposa” was tender: no wonder Zenobia adores him so. Later, when Radamisto and Zenobia duet, the chemistry between Daniels and Patricia Bardon is palpable. She was suffering from an illness, but delivered with the courage Zenobia has to endure suffering. If anything, Bardon’s determination enhanced her portrayal. Daniels sounded genuinely solicitous. The dynamic between the two singers, especially in the Act Two sequences which predicate on the emotional bond between the couple, is so deep that they can see through disguises and the convolutions in the narrative. Tiridate hasn’t a chance.
Luca Pisaroni is an exceptionally good Tiridate. He sings with great authority. He creates Tiridate as a mighty tyrant before whom all enemies quake. Except, of course, Zenobia, whose weapon is love. Pisaroni has presence as well as astounding range. In Act One, his variations on the single vowel “a” are spectacular, suggesting the arsenal he has behind him. The valveless horns of the English Concert extend his burnished tones. This is where period instruments come into their own. Do the horns suggest military glory or the hollowness of power? This subtlety would be lost with modern instruments.
Later, Pisaroni’s “Sì che ti renderai” was so beautiful that the audience rewarded him with the longest, and most genuinely spontaneous applause. Pisaroni’s expressive range shows how Tiridate, formidable as he is, is still “family”. When he sings Tiridate’s magnaminous reconciliation, it feels right, emotionally, although the act would be absurd Realpolitik. In the final scene, the elegant balance of voices suggests that this war-torn family will indeed find harmony.
Elizabeth Watts sang Tigrane. Since this is usually a trouser role, she was dressed in 18th century male costume. At the ENO Radamisto, the part was played as burlesque. A singer like Elizabeth Watts couldn’t do crude even if she tried, for her timbre is naturally lustrous and Italianate, to the extent that she is far better in dramatic repertoire than in Lieder. Tigrane is the peacemaker in this opera, not a figure of derision. Watts’s warm timbre fills out the generosity inherent in Tigrane’s personality. Brenda Rae sang Polissena and Robert Rice sang Farasmane.
Cast and production information:
Radamisto: David Daniels, Zenobia : Patrica Bardon., Tiiridate : Luca Pisaroni, Tigrane : Elizabeth Watts, Polissane : Brenda Rae, Farasmane : Robert Rice, Harry Bicket : conductor, The London Concert The Barbican Hall, London, 10th February 2013