Friday 15 October 2010

ENO's Radamisto, or Handel's Forgotten Masterpiece about Falling in Love with the Wall

English National Opera has some pedigree with Handel.  David Alden began a revival of interest with a production of Ariodante which blew me away at the time but I found less convincing when I watched the DVD more recently.  There was also more recently an excellent new production of Semele.  Unfortunately, this particular Handel is another glass half empty for the company.

David Alden is an annoyingly unreliable director.  He can be marvellous (his recent Janaceks here) or diabolical (his recent Peter Grimes).  This production of Radamisto, originally produced at Santa Fe Opera two years ago, falls about midway between the two – that is it's annoying but not to the dangerous to one's blood pressure levels of the Peter Grimes.  Essentially, Alden's concept here seems to be that Handel wasn't dealing with love between human beings, but love between human beings and the walls and floor.  Either that, or something had gone badly wrong in construction and the singers were preventing the set from falling over.  The result of this is pretty rapidly to suck the emotion out of the performance since characters even when singing to each other rarely seem to look at each other, not to mention the amount of time they spend rolling around on or dragging themselves across the floor.  In the second act, Alden obviously felt the audience might get bored with this (I certainly was) and fell back on the old cliched solution of directors who can't cope with Handel, of adding lots of pointless business into every da capo aria so we don't have to listen.  This presumably explains the dragon's head on the wall which periodically spouted flames, and the incredible bottomless bowl of wine that various characters kept drinking out of as they staggered around the stage looking for a wall to embrace.

Sometimes this kind of thing can be rescued by the musical performances, and to some extent that is true here.  Delivery of numbers is generally very creditable, and sometimes outstanding.  Others have rightly singled out the rich tone of counter-tenor, Lawrence Zazzo in the title role, Ailish Tynan in the trouser role of Tigrane settles down as things go on, James Gower stood in impressively for an indisposed Henry Waddington as Farasmane and Sophie Bevan is simply outstanding as Polissena.  Unfortunately their collective vocal heroics are hampered by two problems: one of tempi, the other of ornamentation.

Frequently Laurence Cummings from the pit sets nearly insanely fast tempi (it almost seems as if the orchestra, despite playing in the main excellently, are desperate to get to the pub.  The singers just about cope with them, but at the expense of the words.  Some may claim that Handel is mostly nonsense anyway, but actually this isn't true.  Yes there are rather more unconvincing lines and changes of fortune here than in a Handel masterpiece like Ariodante or Semele but there are still great emotional riches to be had if Alden, or Cummings had really wanted to look for them.  Yes there are some thrillingly exciting musical moments as a consequence of these tempi, but the loss of so much point in delivery of text is too high a price to pay.  The second problem is the elaborate decoration.  I wonder if this is a new Historically Informed Performance thing, since I don't remember it from other recent Handel performances I have seen.  What seemed to happen here was that in the reprise of section A of a good number of the arias, singers would go into excessive decoration.  Not only did they often seem to be finding this a bit of struggle, but again the sense of the words kept vanishing.

Overall, there is some fine music making here, but it is strait jacketed, or at least was for me, by the production's surgical removal of emotional meaning.  As a consequence, despite the best efforts of the performers, this is a long, ultimately disappointing evening.

A Housekeeping Note: Most other theatres and indeed pubs and restaurants usually sell wine in small (175ml) or large glasses (250ml).  Not at the London Coliseum it turns out.  Here wine is now apparently sold in 125ml (small) or 175ml (large) glasses.  The only way to know this is to look at the small print on the drinks list at the bar.  Not only is £4 a rather steep price for 125ml of wine, but it did not improve my mood at the end of an irritating first act to discover a mere thimbleful of alcohol waiting for me outside (although they scored over the Royal Opera House who lost my order completely last night).  Having done a quick google search it appears there is a government initiative on to reduce alcohol consumption by a campaign to get us to drink smaller glasses.  Leaving aside the odd fact that I have seen no evidence of this initiative anywhere else, hospitality at the Coliseum should make it rather clearer than it presently is what you are actually being sold.

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