Monday, 15 October 2018

Handel's Radamisto from English Touring Opera

Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel Radamisto; William Towers, Katie Bray, Ellie Laugharne, Grant Doyle, Andrew Slater, John-Colyn Gyeantey, dir: James Conway, cond: Peter Whelan; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 13 October 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
A strikingly designed and characterful performance develops in this effective new staging

Handel: Radamisto - Ellie Laugharne, Grant Doyle, William Towers, Katie Bray, Andrew Slater  - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Ellie Laugharne, Grant Doyle, William Towers, Katie Bray, Andrew Slater
English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Despite often apparently complex plots, the problem with many Handel operas is that nothing much actually happens. This apparent contradiction arises because the Opera seria genre is about the interaction between the characters and the placing of individuals in moral dilemmas, rather than about a narrative with action and plot. So when action does occur is is often subsidiary to the characters' reactions. This means that pieces can sometimes seem a little static, hence the desire of directors to 'cheer them up' with extraneous action.

The opening of English Touring Opera's new production of Handel's Radamisto, directed by James Conway and conducted by Peter Whelan, seemed exactly a case in point. For the first act, we were introduced to each of the characters, William Towers' Radamisto and Katie Bray as his wife Zenobia, Grant Doyle as Tiridate and Ellie Laugharne as his wife Polinessa, with Andrew Slater as Radamisto and Polinessa's father Farasmene and John-Colyn Gyeantey as Tiridate's supporter Tigrane. The engine of the plot was Tiridate's actions as a tyrant and his obsessive devotion to his brother-in-law's wife Zenobia. But this unlikely premise is difficult to establish, and relies on the individual singers to establish a strong connection.

With the act cut somewhat, no-one had that much time to establish themselves. Katie Bray was admirably firm and forthright as Zenobia and her strength of character dominated the act, whilst Grant Doyle did not seem to have quite enough time to create a genuine sense of the obsessive and the tyrannical, he seemed a little too well balanced. I don't often wish singers would chew the scenery but a bit of that might not have come amiss here. Radamisto is basically too nice and too much of a good egg and William Towers, though impressive technically, did not get much beyond this, whilst Ellie Laugharne's Polinessa was admirable but seemed somewhat disjointed from the action, with John-Colyn Gyeantey characterful as the inevitable tenor side-kick.

Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray, Ellie Laugharne, Andrew Slater, Grant Doyle - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray, Ellie Laugharne, Andrew Slater, Grant Doyle
English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Thankfully, all this changed in the second act, and we seemed almost in a different opera.

Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray, Grant Doyle - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Radamisto - William Towers, Katie Bray, Grant Doyle
English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
The first scene was presented before the interval, revealing why the set for the first act had seemed somewhat limited and confining, it was based around a striking structure which evoked the sky and the rocky outcrop that Radamisto and Zenobia are fleeing on. Thankfully both Towers and Bray seemed sure footed as they had their crucial scene where Radamisto tries, and fails, to kill his wife (to prevent her being captured). Then Bray continued to impress with her strength of character in Zenobia's aria before she leaps to her death. Radamisto's reaction brought the first half to a close, with a superbly felt aria from Towers giving Radamisto some personality at last.

After the interval the transformation continued, as the stage was opened up to create a lovely evocation of the exoticism of Tiridate's court all black lacquer, gold surfaces and hanging lamps. The engine of the drama here was a pair of scenes, where the singers were able to bring out some striking character dynamics. First Grant Doyle's obsessive intensity as Tiridate came up against Katie Bray's strikingly sung and very strong Zenobia, so they struck amazing sparks off each other, and as James Conway in his programme note suggested, the dynamic between them implied they were very suited despite Zenobia's apparent denials. Then there was a tense scene between brother and sister, Radamisto and Polinessa (Towers and Laugharne) where Laugharne's Polinessa was finally allowed some temperament as she denied her brother the right of revenge on her husband.

Perhaps Radamisto is not the most tensely plotted of Handel's operas, though Handel clearly thought enough of it to develop two different, but equally striking versions. Premiered in Spring 1720 (with a soprano singing the title role), it returned late in 1720 with a new cast centred around the great alto castrato Senesino now singing Radamisto. Unusually for Handel, both versions are equally strong. ETO performed a version based on his second 1720 version and the 1728 revision of this which removed the character of Fraarte. And for all the perceived problems, ETO's cast really did make us care for the characters and Towers, Bray, Laugharne and Doyle created an intriguing sense of dynamic. And, as with the majority of modern Handel productions, we were almost able to take the technical difficulties for granted, such was the standard of both technique and style.

Handel: Radamisto - Katie Bray - English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Handel: Radamisto - Katie Bray -
English Touring Opera (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
The drama developed via a scene were Towers' Radamisto disguises himself as a servant reporting his own death. This can often seem rather contrived, but Towers' demeanour made it work and helped develop a greater sense of Radamisto's character. The whole culminates in the striking quartet, one of the few such in ensembles Handel's operatic opus; demonstrating not so much that he couldn't write them, but that he saw no musico-dramatic need for them. As it was, Conway's production rightly made this the crux of the whole matter, so that the contrition of Doyle's Tiridate arose out of it.

I rather liked the way Ellie Laugharne's Polinessa grew throughout the second half, and in her rigid refusal of Grant Doyle's contrite approaches during the Coro you sensed the character had developed a power similar to that of Katie Bray's Zenobia. The balance of power in both partnerships (and countries) was with the women.

The two subsidiary roles, Andrew Slater as Farasmane and John-Colyn Gyeantey as Tigrane, both provided strong support. Both are essentially plot devices; Slater made Farasmane work as an older ruler, uncertain of his status, whilst Gyeantey's actually made us care for Tigrane who evolves as the most civilised of the lot.

Adam Wiltshire's designs and Rory Beaton's lighting created some highly evocative tableaux in the second half of the opera, and they solved the problems of the opening scene of Act Two marvellously, it was just in the first act that things seemed not quite dynamic enough.

In the pit, the Old Street Band gave a lively and engaging performance directed from the harpsichord by Peter Whelan.

I always enjoy James Conway's productions, and his Handel operas are a particular treat. He is one of the few directors who refrains from trying to add too much to the tricky mix of Baroque opera, though in Act One of this production I could see why some directors might try to add extraneous details to the drama.   Of course, this was only the work's second outing and it will go on to develop during the run, which takes in Durham (23/10), Saffron Walden (26/10), Snape (2/11), Ulverston (6/11), Buxton (9/11), Bath (12/11), Oxford (16/11), Exeter (20 & 24/11). Do catch it if you can.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • Crowd-funding & collaboration: new choral music from Lumen  - interview
  • Double concerto for bandoneon and violin (★★★½) - CD review
  • The choral music of Richard Allain (★★★½) - CD review
  • Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots returns to the Paris Opera - Opera review
  • Modified Rapture: Verdi's Aida from the Met (★★★½) - Opera review
  • The Emperor's Fiddler - violinist David Irving on historical approaches on his new disc - interview
  • Schubert's Winter Journey - Robin Tritschler and Malcolm Martineau at Wigmore Hall  - (★★★★★Concert review
  • Swan songs - Gerald Finley and Julius Drake at Temple Song  (★★★★★)  - Concert review
  • Love & Obsession: Robert & Clara Schumann and Brahms at Conway Hall - concert review
  • New dance double bill from New English Ballet Theatre & The English Concert (★★★★)  - Ballet Review
  • Pared down & claustrophobic: La Tragédie de Carmen from Pop-Up Opera  (★★★) - Opera review
  • Vividly theatrical, lyrically sung, but.... - Salome at ENO  (★★★★) - Opera review
  • A forgotten tradition: premiere recordings of two English symphonic works from John Andrews & BBC Concert Orchestra (★★★½) - CD review
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