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Recordings

George Frederick Handel: Radamisto
01 Feb 2006

HANDEL: Radamisto

Handel went to London as a free-lance musician – i.e., “on his own bottom” – in autumn 1710. His Rinaldo of February 1711, with its dazzling arias and scenic spectacles, was resoundingly successful.

George Frederick Handel: Radamisto
An opera, as it is perform’d at the King’s Theatre in the Hay-Market, for the Royal Academy of Musick, London, April – June 1720.

Joyce DiDonato, Patrizia Ciofi, Maite Beaumont, Dominique Labelle, Laura Cherici, Zachary Stains, Carlo Lepore, Il Complesso Barocco, Alan Curtis (cond.).

Virgin Classics 7243 5 45673 2 2 [3CDs]

 

His next four operas for London were – by comparison – modest affairs; but his fifth, Radamisto, was probably conceived to outdo Rinaldo, so as to be the central attraction during the first, three-month season of the brand new Royal Academy of Musick. In May 1719 the governor of the academy had issued a warrant together with instructions, which empowered Handel to travel in order to engage the castrato Senesino for as long as possible and other voices for one season. Handel’s chief destination was Dresden, where he offered £500 to Margherita Durastante, who had portrayed Agrippina for him at Venice in 1709, and was to portray Radamisto in his new opera. While in Dresden he undoubtedly spoke also to the castratos Senesino and Berselli, the soprano Salvai, and the bass Boschi, all of whom came to London for the Royal Academy’s second season, for which Handel revised his successful Radamisto.

Its text was adapted in London (probably by Nicola Haym) from L’amor tirannico (Florence, 1712), which is based on Domenico Lalli’s L’amor tirannico (Venice, 1710), whose source was Georges de Scudéry’s L’amour tyrannique (Paris, 1639). Ordinarily, the text adaptor would sign (and profit from) the dedication in a libretto, but “George Frederic Handel” signed the dedication of Radamisto “to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty.” The only prompt copy for any Handel opera known to be extant is for this production, and its annotations imply a lavish affair. There were ten female and perhaps sixteen male supernumeraries, who served as soldiers or companions. During a scene-change (I, viii-ix) accompanied by a sinfonia, at least eight pike-bearing soldiers charged over a practicable bridge. In addition, dancers performed the four-part balli placed at the end of each act. Act I ends in Bb, the key of the ensuing Marche and Rigadon I, which are followed by Rigadon II in the relative minor, then by an Air in Bb. Act II ends in A, the key of a huge Passacaille (21 statements of an 8-bar pattern: 12 in A, 6 in the relative minor, plus 3 more in A) and a binary Gigue. Act III ends in D with a substantial chorus in rondo form (which was presumably danced), a Passepied based on the choral refrain, a Rigadon in the relative minor, a da capo of the Passepied, and a da capo of the choral refrain. Strings, oboes and bassoons play the dance music after acts I and II; two French horns and two trumpets join them to provide a true climax at the end of act III. The only other London operas for which Handel wrote ballets were those of 1734-5, when Marie Sallé danced at Covent Garden. It therefore seems clear that Radamisto was imbued with “Most Excellent Majesty.”

Alan Curtis was doubtless aware of this when Radamisto became the sixth Handel opera in his recorded output. It followed Admeto (1978), a single-disc abridgement of Floridante (1990), Rodrigo (1997), Arminio (2000) and Deidamia (2002). His Lotario (2004) and Rodelinda (2005) have followed it, and two of his single discs have provided excerpts from Handel’s operas: La maga abbandonata (2002) has nine arias from three operas, while Amor e gelosia (2003) has one duet from each of twelve operas, plus two duets and two arias from Poro. Curtis is a meticulous scholar, who has edited (and sometimes published) the keyboard music he has recorded (ranging from Tarquinio Merula to Bach’s Goldberg Variations) as well as the operas he has produced (most notably Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea). He clearly iterated his “credo” with regard to Handel’s operas within the booklet accompanying his recording of Admeto: singing is “by far the most important aspect of the performance of any Baroque opera;” it must seriously try “to project the various affects of each aria;” ornaments must be added, “in middle sections as well as da capos, except where Handel’s densely active, complicated line would admit of no sensible alteration, much less ‘improvement;’” recitatives must be paced briskly, “singing less and declaiming more;” and the orchestra should be “constituted of specialists in Baroque performance techniques on authentic instruments.” It is noteworthy that his Radamisto orchestra – Il Complesso Barocco – includes 33 specialists: 18 strings (11 + 2 + 3 + 2), 4 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 flutes, 2 trumpets, 2 French horns, 1 theorbo and 2 harpsichords. It is remarkably similar to the orchestra employed during the first season of the Royal Academy. A list dated 15 February 1720 names 34 musicians and their instruments: 25 strings (17 + 2 + 4 + 2), 4 oboes (2 of whom doubled as flute players), 3 bassoons, 1 trumpet and 1 theorbo. For Radamisto, this group would have been supplemented by 1 trumpet, 2 French horns and 2 harpsichords.

When Radamisto was his “forthcoming recording,” Curtis was interviewed by David Vickers. He said that he chose to record the April 1720 version of the work for several reasons. Nicholas McGegan had already recorded the December 1720 version. (Note that Curtis replaced two of the April arias – in III: v and III: xi – with pieces from the December production.) He preferred arias for Radamisto, Tiridate and Polinessa at their original pitch level, rather than at the lower, transposed level found in Handel’s December version. He was presumably also displeased by the transpositions for Zenobia, which move her arias to a higher pitch level. He found that such transpositions resulted in “really awkward things” in the vocal lines, that Handel had left some of the viola parts unrevised, and that some excellent pieces were eliminated, such as Tiridate’s “sublime” “Stragi, morti, sangue ed armi” (I: iii). All of the act-ending balli were also deleted. Curtis also discussed his “principle of having as many Italians as possible” in each cast, so that a rendition “will feature good diction and good fast speaking recitatives.” But “reality means that usually if you have half Italians that is about as much as you can do,” which is true for Radamisto.

His recording clearly manifests his scholarly and musical concerns. The recitatives and even the arias are declaimed, so that the text and its meaning are always vibrant. The ornaments added for da capos almost always embellish rather than alter a written line. This contrasts sharply with McGegan’s approach, in which the singers often replace the written lines with jarring displays of virtuosity, e.g., with stratospheric scales. They can be heard in Zenobia’s “Son contenta,” “Troppo sofferse” and “Già che morir,” as well as in Polissena’s “Dopo l’orride procelle,” “Non sarà quest’alma mia” and “Sposo ingrato.” It seems highly unlikely that any such displays were heard in the April 1720 production, when these long-suffering wives were portrayed by two modest English women, Anastasia Robinson and Ann Turner Robinson. McGegan’s recording does, of course, represent the December 1720 production, when these spouses were instead portrayed by two Italians, Margherita Durastante and Maddalena Salvai, who presumably added more ornaments. Sometimes less is definitely more effective, as in the Curtis version of Radamisto’s incomparable “Ombra cara.” Curtis frequently adds tersely expressive cadenzas at the ends of middle sections and da capos. McGegan, on the other hand, sometimes adds lengthy cadenzas, e.g., those which end Radamisto’s “Cara sposa,” Farasmane’s “Son lievi le catene,” and Zenobia and Radamisto’s “Se teco vive il cor.” Perhaps McGegan added them because “Cara sposa” is the only aria in the score that is accompanied by only a bass line, “Son lievi” is Farasmane’s lone aria, and “Se teco vive” ends act II. Farasmane, the only bass in the April 1720 cast, is King of Thrace and father of Radamisto and Polissena; but he is a captive of Tiridate, Fraarte and Tigrane, and is to be slain as his son watches in I: iv-vii. His fearless aria, sung after a (temporary?) reprieve, is unfortunately reminiscent of “O ruddier than the cherry,” sung by Polyphemus in Acis and Galatea.

Late Baroque pieces are typically based on dance rhythms. The current website for McGegan begins by stressing the quality that is “central to his music-making: ... the rhythmic bounce, tempos that border on the reckless and the musical wit that bubbles up whenever appropriate.” This is most certainly true, and it contrasts sharply with the general perception of Curtis, who noted – when interviewed by Vickers – that “light music is not perceived as my specialty.” People “probably think about me as somebody who brings out the dramatic, intense, sombre and dark side of Handel. But I love the light side! I appreciate his sense of humor as much as anybody.” The customary opinions concerning these two conductors are not borne out by a comparison of the lengths of the 25 arias found on their recordings of Radamisto. Curtis is faster in 9, McGegan is faster in only 5, and they are virtually identical in 11. McGegan’s recording never borders on the “reckless,” and he has significantly slower tempos for three arias. They seem dramatically justified, because they stress the solemnity of Radamisto’s “Ombra cara” (47” longer) and “Dolce bene” (1’04”) as well as the dance-like features of Tigrane’s “La sorte, il ciel, Amor” (32”). Only for Radamisto’s closing aria of grief, “Qual nave smarrita,” does Curtis maintain a far slower tempo (2’ longer).

A dozen years ago, McGegan provided us with a lively rendition of the December 1720 version of Radamisto. The fact that it was recorded during live performances must explain why the singers often go “over the top” with virtuosic passagework, why they are occasionally “more or less” together with the accompanying instruments, and why they (especially the women) sometimes sound shrill, as if they were “right on top” of the microphones. Curtis has now provided a choice rendition of the April 1720 version. His singers decorate Handel’s lines circumspectly, and their voices sound sweet, which is bad only when their scales sound like nothing more than scales (as in Tiridate’s “Stragi, morti, sangue ed armi” and Tigrane’s “La sorte, il ciel, Amor”). Anyone seeking rumbling bass arias and a heroic countertenor should listen to McGegan’s performance. Anyone searching for women who have mastered their roles exquisitely should listen to the sopranos Dominique Labelle and Patrizia Ciofi and the mezzo-sopranos Joyce DiDonato and Maite Beaumont, who sing 21 of the 28 arias and both of the duets on the Curtis recording. Even Labelle, who – as Fraarte – plays a minimal dramatic role, excels when thrice singing of love for Zenobia and when once vowing to fight his tyrannical brother. Fraarte was originally played by Benedetto Baldassari, the only castrato in the cast. Since he was not good (or masculine?) enough to portray either of the men with virile roles (Radamisto and Tiridate), yet was good enough to receive four excellent arias, it should be obvious that many such treasures await anyone who listens to this work, imbued with “Most Excellent Majesty.”

Sources: J. M. Knapp, “Handel, The Royal Academy of Music, and Its First Opera Season in London (1720),” Musical Quarterly, 45 (1959), 145-67; W. Dean and J. M. Knapp, Handel’s Operas, 1704-26 (1987), 324-67; J. Milhous and R. D. Hume, “New Light on Handel and the Royal Academy of Music in 1720,” Theatre Journal, 35 (1983), 149-67; Milhous and Hume, “A Prompt Copy of Handel’s ‘Radamisto’,” Musical Times, 127 (1986), 316-21; E. Harris, ed., The Librettos of Handel’s Operas (1989), III, 1-76 (the prompt copy for the April 1720 production), and IX, 121-99 (the text for the December 1720 production); T. Best, ed., Händel: Radamisto, Opera seria in tre atti, HWV 12a, HHA II, Band 9.1 (1997); “http://gfhandel.org/interviews/curtis.htm” and http://www.nicholasmcgegan.com/profile.htm

Comparison recording:

Handel: Radamisto. ... London, December 1720 – March 1721. Tiridate (Michel Dean, bass/baritone), Fraarte (Monika Frimmer, soprano), Polissena (Lisa Saffer, soprano), Farasmane (Nicolas Cavallier, bass), Radamisto (Ralf Popken, countertenor), Zenobia (Juliana Gondek, soprano) and Tigrane (Dana Hanchard, soprano), with the Freiburger Barockorchester, directed by Nicolas McGegan, 1993 Göttingen Festival Production.
Harmonia Mundi 907111.13 [3 CDs], 1994.


Lowell E. Lindgren, Ph.D.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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