Handel's Radamisto has an improbable plot (although average by Baroque opera standards) which can make it difficult to stage. The most recent staging in London was the ENO production in 2010, which had a largely abstract setting. However, in a concert performance without costumes or sets – and particularly when performed complete with all the recitatives (in the revised version) – the audience can focus on the core human relationships and emotions and marvel at how eloquently and sensitively Handel explores each of these different emotions.
For this London performance, part of a European and US tour, Harry Bicket and The English Concert had assembled a fine cast of singers, all versatile in Baroque operatic repertoire. The title role was sung by the veteran countertenor David Daniels, his faithful wife Zenobia by the excellent Handelian mezzo Patricia Bardon. The role of the villainous King Tiridate was taken by Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni (the only Italian in the cast), and his unhappy wife was sung by rising American soprano Brenda Rae, who was a memorable Armida in Glyndebourne's Rinaldo (2011). Tiridate's ally Tigrane (a role originally composed for a soprano castrato) was sung by soprano Elizabeth Watts, and bass Robert Rice sung the minor role of Farasmane, Radamisto's father. Before the concert, however, an announcement informed us that all three female singers were suffering from colds and asked for our understanding. I am happy to report that all three singers sang valiantly in spite of their condition, but it does make my task as a reviewer difficult, as I don't want to make judgements on their singing when they are ill.
Overall, two singers stood out. Luca Pisaroni, as the tyrant Tiridate, was in imperial form both vocally and dramatically, portraying this sinister character with natural ease. His recitative singing was exemplary and the arias were sung with plenty of bravura as well as finely-controlled coloratura, bringing the house down with his Act III aria "Alzo al volo di mia fama". The other hero (heroine) of the evening was Elizabeth Watts. She sounded slightly nasal, because of her cold, but that didn't stop her from singing the crucial role of Tigrane with total commitment and virtuosity. The role is instrumental in bringing a peaceful resolution to this messy situation, and her lively portrayal of the character in both her recitatives and arias was impressive.
I found the singing of the lead couple, on the other hand, somewhat uneven. David Daniels is a wonderful singer and has been one of the leading operatic countertenors of our age, but perhaps he is vocally no longer at his prime. He still has a sonorous top register which was effective in the lyrical arias, but he lacked the agility in the coloratura passages in the livelier arias. Patricia Bardon (Zenobia) seemed to be suffering most from her cold (she was in much better voice as Cornelia in the ENO Julius Caesar last autumn), but her arias and the duet with Radamisto in the second half of Act II were movingly sung. However, at times, I felt she could have played Zenobia with more dignity.
The role of Polissena, Tiridate's long-suffering wife and Radamisto's sister, was valiantly sung by Brenda Rae, also under the weather. She didn't quite demonstrate the charisma she showed as Armida in the Glyndebourne Rinaldo (admittedly Polissena is a more sober role), but her coloratura and ornamentations in the da capo arias (including some high notes) were elegantly performed.
Harry Bicket directed his excellent period-instrument ensemble from the harpsichord. His approach was generally resolute and dignified, as evident in the overture, and his brisk pacing and tight ensemble made certain that the drama didn't slacken at any point. The continuo group, including Bicket, deserves special mention for their sensitive and varied accompaniment – the brilliant Jo Crouch on the cello and Bill Carter on a particularly sonorous theorbo. There were notable solo contributions from the flute (Lisa Beznosiuk), and the natural horns, trumpets and timpani added colour and pomp to the proceedings.
Barbican Centre: HallSilk Street
London Greater London United Kingdom EC2Y 8DS
David Daniels © Robert Recker licensed to Virgin Classics