I vividly remember reviewing the English National Opera production of Handel’s Radamisto at the end of 2010. What struck me about that production was the consistent quality of the singing, with Lawrence Zazzo and Christine Rice worthy of special mention. ENO chose to perform the score on modern instruments, but conducted by redoubtable Handel expert, Laurence Cummings, who has been appointed artistic director of the Göttingen International Handel Festival.
In the Barbican on Sunday night one has to presuppose that many members of the audience bought tickets to hear the renowned American counter-tenor, David Daniels who has had a long and successful career, notably as the first counter-tenor to be cast as Orpheus at the Met. He has a productive relationship with his record label, Virgin and clearly has a loyal following. This was my first opportunity to hear him live and I am genuinely sad to report that his performance was very much a curate’s egg. In short he can sing the slow arias with considerable poise and artistry, but the warlike arias (“Perfido”and “Vile! Se mi dai vita”) incorporating coloratura were sadly beyond his reach and lacking both power and flexibility. It’s a shame, because these are the two arias which Handel added specifically in his first revision of 1720 to showcase the virtuosity of the great Senesino. However, “Ombra cara di mia sposa” was truly beautifully sung and Mr Daniels’ use of sotto voce quite breathtaking. But those of us who went to hear him sounding like a feisty castrato, both focused and forceful, were disappointed.
Without the powerful and convincing central performance in Radamisto which we all hoped for, it paved the way for the band of younger singers to jockey for the attention of this critic. Luca Pisaroni I heard for the first time in the Glyndebourne production of Rinaldo at the BBC Proms. I remember describing him as ‘superb’ as Argante. It was perhaps no surprise that he stole the show as Tiridate at the Barbican. Mr Pisaroni made a quite terrifying villain of the ‘He’s behind you’ variety, but was also capable of being deliciously seductive towards Zenobia, Radamisto’s consort and he is clearly a very fine bel canto singer. Tiridate was originally a tenor role but Handel recast him in his first revision for Giuseppe Maria Boschi, who was renowned (according to contemporary accounts) for his ability to ‘do anger.’ Tiridate’s tour de force was the third act aria, ‘Alzo al volo,’ in which both horns and high trumpets are added to the ensemble. This was the one aria in last night’s performance which briefly brought the performance to a standstill, such was the sheer volume and intensity of the applause and cheering.
Another singer who made her mark in the Glyndebourne Rinaldo was Brenda Rae, an American soprano who is currently a member of the ensemble at Oper Frankfurt. Here she was cast as Polissena, Tiridate’s wronged wife. We had had an announcement before the performance, advising us that all three female performers were suffering from colds but were willing to soldier on. If Miss Rae was in fact ill, she showed no signs of it, which is no doubt further proof of her seemingly unflappable professionalism. Last summer she took over as Lucia in Vienna at a day’s notice when both the star and her cover were taken ill. At the Barbican she was immaculately dressed and coiffed, looking every inch an Armenian queen. Her singing too was poised, elegant and beautifully attuned to the venue, to Mr Pisaroni and to her orchestral accompaniment. This is a soprano who can regulate her vibrato, sing bel canto with apparent ease, produce convincing Baroque trills and provide a huge variety of tonal light and shade.
I loved Christine Rice’s interpretation of Zenobia in the ENO production. The only criticism I read of her singing was by Rupert Christiansen who wrote, “My only small complaint is that the close blend of Rice and Zazzo’s vocal timbres is uncomfortable – they neither complement nor contrast with each other.” In the performance at the Barbican Patricia Bardon was cast as the redoubtable heroine, impervious to Tiridate’s lounge-lizard tactics (though how any woman could resist Mr Pisaroni’s charms is another matter entirely.) Her voice beautifully counter-balanced Mr Daniels’, especially in their exquisite final duet. I do wonder if the fabled cold was giving Miss Bardon a touch of laryngitis because the tone colour of her voice on this hearing was very dark. I’m afraid she didn’t succeed as well as Christine Rice did at convincing me of the heroic nature of her love and her willingness to die rather than submit to a quickie with Tiridate.
It transpires that Miss Bardon and Mr Daniels were reprising roles which they played at the Theater an der Wien last month under the baton of René Jacobs. I am guessing that Maestro Jacobs took most of the tempi at a greater lick than we had with Harry Bicket at the Barbican. (I have read that both Bardon and Daniels struggled at times to keep up with Jacobs’ tempi.) With Mr Bicket at the helm, there was more than one moment when he failed to accommodate Mr Pisaroni’s rubato adequately and didn’t follow the lead of his singers when they attempted to negotiate the cadenzas. In Mr Daniels’ case, there were a couple of times where he tried to drive Mr Bicket’s sluggish tempi, which is what led me to compare and contrast the chosen speeds of the two conductors. Unlike Mr Bicket, Mr Cummings at ENO in 2010 pushed all his principals which really tested their mettle in the coloratura. In the Barbican performance there was little or no eye contact between the conductor and his singers and what it lacked overall was the sense of energy and excitement which today’s great interpreters inject into opera seria. Everything was too legato for my taste (full marks to David Daniels for his breath control at that speed,) over-romanticised and even over-indulgent.
It was the slow tempi which initially gave Elizabeth Watts as Tigrane an unwarranted opportunity to sing this music as if it were grand opera and for Miss Bardon to give the impression she was reprising her winning performance as Erda from the Met. I am glad to report that Miss Watts, who was obviously suffering from a streaming cold and cough, gradually picked up and gave a very engaging performance as Tigrane, the puppet master who single-handedly resolves all the conflicts and yet still doesn’t get the girl. She produced some really excellent Handel singing in the later acts. Finally I should mention that the young British baritone, Robert Rice held his own in the rather ungrateful role of Farasmane.
Maybe Radamisto isn’t Handel’s greatest opera, but I felt in awe as wonderful aria after wonderful aria followed on each other’s heels in a seemingly unending procession. It is full of light and shade too, with each principal (apart from Farasmane) getting the chance to express the extremes of rage and regret. Mr Bicket’s limp-wristed tempi and his lack of apparent connection with the singers disappointed this critic, but not so the playing of The English Concert who performed with great delicacy and beauty of sound. The trouble was, I wanted all the performers to be in the same galleon as Mr Pisaroni. Now if we had an appropriate venue in London where Baroque opera could be staged and which could also host the incipient opera seria revival of Handel’s contemporaries, I am sure singers of this calibre would have dismissed all lingering shadows of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner and sounded consistently Handelian.
Photographs © Marco Borggreve (Pisaroni, Watts), Robert Recker (Daniels)