Notes and Editorial Reviews
Radamisto occupies a special place in my personal musical life. Back in 1960, it was the first Handel opera I had ever seen, staged in a production by the Handel Opera Company, a splendid organization that miraculously operated for some years on little more than a shoestring at a time when the composer’s operas were largely considered exotic curiosities. Like many of their productions, that Radamisto was the first staging in Britain since the 18th century, and although details of the performance now elude me, I do recall being swept away by the majestic heroism of the piece.
Grandeur is indeed a key component of Radamisto, the first Handel opera to be staged by the newly formed Royal Academy of Music. It premiered at the
King’s Theatre on April 27, 1720, running for 10 performances and achieving considerable success with an audience that, according to one contemporary account, fought to gain admission to the house on the opening night. In December of the same year, Radamisto was revived with substantial alterations occasioned largely by the arrival in England that summer of the Academy’s newly engaged superstar, one Francesco Bernardi, better known as Senesino, who took over the title role previously sung by the soprano Margherita Durastanti. The changes Handel made affected not only vocal register (Tiridate, for instance, became a bass rather than a tenor); he introduced no fewer than 10 new arias, a duet, and an outstanding quartet for the final scene.
These wholesale changes resulted in the transformation of Radamisto into what was almost a new opera, a situation that has caused some problem to Handel scholars, who in general have tended to the view expressed by their doyen, Winton Dean, that Radamisto “is perhaps the only Handel opera of which a later version has a strong claim to rank with or even above the original.” This was the line taken by the only previous complete recording, which stemmed from the 1993 Göttingen Festival production of the December 1720 score conducted by Nicholas McGegan. As he made clear when he first told me about this recording, Alan Curtis is by no means convinced of the overall superiority of the revision. It was this—added to the practicality of providing a real alternative to McGegan—that decided Curtis on recording Handel’s first version. Or nearly. Ever the pragmatist, Curtis has introduced two of Handel’s revisions to act III, replacing Polissena’s “Sposo ingrata” with the more dramatically viable “Barbaro, partirò,” and replacing Zenobia’s “O scemani” with the little duet for Zenobia and Radamisto. It is also worth noting that Curtis has included the ballet music with which Handel concluded each of the three acts.
Handel’s success with Radamisto was well warranted. It has a good libretto, reputedly by Nicola Haym, in which the action moves forward with pace and without distraction from the central argument. It also contains some of Handel’s finest arias, above all, Radamisto’s act II Ombra cara, a magnificent lament for his supposedly lost wife Zenobia, in which the beautifully wrought vocal line is supported by a richly contrapuntal accompaniment with slithering chromatic strings, commentators on the tragedy that has just taken place. It is the conjugal love of Radamisto and Zenobia in the face of the lust of the powerful and unredeemably black-hearted Armenian king Tiridate that forms the central tenet of the drama. The men in general show up in a poor light. Radamisto himself is a flawed, vulnerable hero, frequently needing to be buoyed by his wife, while Tigrane is an adolescent figure that lusts after Tiridate’s long-suffering wife Polissena. Tiridate’s designs on Zenobia are shared by his brother Fraarte, who meets with as little success with the feisty lady, leaving only Farasmane, king of Thrace and the father of Polissena and Radamisto as the only truly heroic male.
As has consistently been the case with Curtis’s recent run of Handel opera recordings, he has chosen a first-rate cast that, where comparisons are applicable, is nearly always superior to that of McGegan. Joyce DiDonato is a magnificent Radamisto, singing the role with gleaming tone and a dramatic strength that goes a long way to belying his weaknesses. Equally at home in the long lines of Caro sposa (act I) and Ombra cara, or the uncomprehending fury of Vanne, sorella ingrata (act II), DiDonato’s is throughout a supremely commanding performance. And for just one of many examples that provide fresh evidence of the care that Curtis always lavishes on secco recitative, just listen to DiDonato’s dumbfounded reaction when Radamisto hears that his sister will play no part in having her loathsome husband murdered (act II/8). Patrizia Ciofi’s Polissena comes as a relief after her Vivaldi outings with Fabio Biondi, the soprano indulging in none of the vulgar mannerisms on display in those recordings. Indeed, she is here on the form that won my unstinting admiration on the Handel duets disc she made with DiDonato, immediately engaging sympathy for Polissena’s predicament in “Sommi dei,” the E-Minor cavatina that opens the opera. She also copes well with “Barbaro, partirò,” the moment at which suffering finally turns to anger, although the tessitura of this replacement aria lays in her less comfortable middle range.
The Zenobia of Maite Beaumont completes a near-flawless trio of principals. Her only act I aria, “Son contenta,” is a fast and furious number in which Zenobia’s heroic stature is immediately established by Beaumont’s edge-of-the-seat singing, with perfectly placed coloratura divisions. In act II, both the cavatina “Quando mai” and the aria “Troppo sofferse” show Zenobia’s tender side, the suffering conveyed in the latter touching in the extreme. The tyrant Tiridate is given two bravura arias, both with obbligato parts. His act I “Stragi, morti” is an outburst of blood-thirsty threats supported by trumpets, while horns back up the pompous arrogance of his act III “Alzo al volo.” Both are sung with considerable panache by the young Australian tenor Zachary Stains. Most of Fraarte’s music tends to be lightweight, and the role is most attractively sung by another Curtis favorite, Dominique Labelle, while Laura Cherici, a singer I don’t recall encountering previously, is an enchanting Tigrane. She is the possessor of a lovely, gently creamy soprano produced with fluent ease. Finally, praise for bass Carlo Lepore, whose dignified Farasmane is a pleasure to hear on the relatively few occasions he makes an appearance.
It is becoming exceptionally difficult to find fresh things to say about Curtis’s inspired Handel opera recordings. Once again, the sheer drama of his conception and his burning conviction leap from the speakers in a way that makes McGegan’s fine performance sound almost flat in comparison. The sense of line, of subtly articulated rhythm, of tempos never subjected to mannered fluctuations once established, confirms Curtis as a Handelian who stands unexcelled today. As is customary, he is admirably supported by Il Complesso Barocco, by turn fiery and sensitively alive to his direction. My one small caveat is the rather dry sound, which would have benefited from a shade more space and ambiance. Otherwise, this is another triumph to add to an ever increasing and ever more valuable series.
FANFARE: Brian Robins
Works on This Recording
Radamisto, HWV 12 by George Frideric Handel
Zachary Stains (Tenor),
Patrizia Ciofi (Soprano),
Carlo Lepore (Bass),
Dominique Labelle (Soprano),
Maité Beaumont (Alto),
Laura Cherici (Soprano),
Joyce DiDonato (Mezzo Soprano)
Il Complesso Barocco
Written: 1712/1720; London, England
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