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Santa Fe Preview: Radamisto

After missing last year's season at Santa Fe Opera (thanks again to Michael Lodico, for stepping in for Ionarts), we are heading back this week to New Mexico to let you know what is on the stage at the best American summer opera festival.

available at Amazon
Handel, Radamisto, J. DiDonato, P. Ciofi, M. Beaumont, Il Complesso Barocco, A. Curtis

Virgin 7243 5 457673 2 2
Handel inaugurated his tenure at the Royal Academy of Music with this opera, Radamisto, in April 1720 at King's Theater. The premiere was a success, and Handel created a modern editing nightmare by revising the opera several times for revivals (December 1720, 1721, and 1728). By the Royal Academy's second season, Handel had managed to bring his favorite singers from Dresden, including Margherita Durastante, Senesino, Berselli, and Boschi, and the differences in the later editions of Radamisto are mostly the result of cast upgrading. After being revived in the 20th century, the opera has experienced a wave of popularity, with recent productions in Hamburg, Zurich, and Leeds, to name a few.

The piece of the Santa Fe season that was missing was Baroque opera, something that the company has remedied with Rameau’s Platée last summer and Handel's Radamisto, which opens tonight. True, neither work cracks the 17th-century barrier -- Lully? Monteverdi? anyone? -- and Santa Fe has not partnered with an established historically informed performance (HIP) ensemble, but we will take what we can get. The conductor, Harry Bicket, is a specialist with some impressive Handel work in his discography. Still, imagine William Christie with Les Arts Florissants or Alan Curtis with Il Complesso Barocco in the Santa Fe Opera pit -- my job is only to dream big, and it is up to the opera professionals to deal with the challenges of making something like that happen.

Online Score:
HWV 12a/12b (Ausgabe der Deutschen Händelgesellschaft, ed. F. Chrysander, vol. 63 [Leipzig, 1875])
The libretto (.PDF file) of this opera is generally credited to Nicola Francesco Haym. Like many of Handel's operas, it is an adaptation of earlier libretti, L'amor tirranico, o Zenobia by Domenico Lalli and Zenobia by Matteo Noris. They were, in turn, derived from Georges de Scudéry’s L’amour tyrannique (Paris, 1639), with reference to a historical episode described in Tacitus's Annals of Imperial Rome. The story is set in Armenia, A.D. 53, where the king, Tiridate, is plotting to attack the kingdom of Thrace. The Thracian ruler, Farasmane, has pledged his daughter Polissena in marriage to Tiridate. Tiridate falls in love instead with Zenobia, the wife of Farasmane's son, Radamisto, and one of Tiridate's allies, Tigrane, falls in love with Polissena. When Radamisto is besieged in the last Thracian city, Zenobia opts to commit suicide rather than bring shame to her husband. She is rescued by the Armenians, in whose camp Radamisto, in disguise, finds her. With the help of the king's brother, Fraarte, Tiridate's plan to wed Zenobia ultimately fails, and husband and wife are united.

Handel, Son contenta di morire, from Radamisto
Handel, "Son contenta di morire," from Radamisto
One of the more interesting arias, for Zenobia, with its odd violin obbligato and jagged, odd chromatic turns
Jens has already reviewed the latest recording, for which musicologist and conductor Alan Curtis opted for the April 1720 version of the opera (more or less what is found in the Halle Handel Edition edited by Michael Pacholke). An unusual amount of information is available about that first production, because of the discovery of a libretto that had been marked up by a prompter -- see Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, A Prompt Copy of Handel's 'Radamisto', The Musical Times 127 (1986): 316-321. As usual, Curtis has an excellent cast, especially the three lead women, Joyce DiDonato (Radamisto), Patrizia Ciofi (Polissena), and Maïté Beaumont (Zenobia). Tenor Zachary Stains (Tiridate) and bass Carlo Lepore (Farasmane) please me less, but not enough to make the recording unpalatable.

Santa Fe appears to be performing the 1728 version of the opera, for which Handel cut the role of Fraarte (no singer has been announced for the role at Santa Fe). Handel first conceived the title role for Margherita Durastanti, a soprano who tended toward mezzo-soprano territory (a voice probably quite like Joyce DiDonato) and trouser roles. The production of Radamisto at Santa Fe will feature the countertenor David Daniels, shifting us to the later versions of the opera, in which Handel recast the title role for the alto castrato Senesino.

For Polissena, who was always a high soprano in all three versions, Santa Fe has a high soprano, Laura Claycomb (like Curtis, who had Ciofi). Handel created the role of Zenobia for a low female voice (Anastasia Robinson), modifying it twice, for soprano (Durastanti) and mezzo-soprano (Faustina Bordoni). Mezzo-soprano Deborah Domanski stepped in just this week to replace Christine Rice at Santa Fe, which again indicates the 1728 version, as does the casting of bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Tiridate. Soprano Heidi Stober as Tigrane, however, seems to lean toward the earlier versions (for soprano and soprano castrato). David Alden has created a new production for this opera's first appearance at Santa Fe. Almost all of the principal singers are new to Santa Fe, except Stober and former apprentice singer Kevin Murphy (Farasmane).

Handel's Radamisto will be performed on July 19 and 23, August 1, 7, 15, and 20, at Santa Fe Opera.


Anonymous said...

Hooray that you'll be blogging from Santa Fe. I'm bummed I can't make it, and excited you'll be there.

Anonymous said...

I went to last night's performance. Can anybody explain Tigrane's costume to me? I mean, she *was* wearing Birkenstocks and a fez, right?

Unknown said...

I have seen the show about 8 times now (I work on it) and I think that the singing is incredible but I still can't figure out some of the design choices.

Charles T. Downey said...

I'm so excited to be going. More about the Birkenstocks and fez later this week!

Anonymous said...

I'm going later this week and am really looking forward to it. When Santa Fe did Xerxes a number of years ago, the only singers who seemed comfortably free with baroque ornamentation were the countertenors, so I'm hoping to hear how things have developed.

And as an (alas, former) continuo player, I'm very interested in hearing what's going on there. I may not be remembering right, but I think that for the Xerxes performance they only had a harpsichord and a theorbo(maybe the latter is wishful remberence on my part), but I'm hoping for a bit more variety there, too. Anyone know what sort of continuo forces Handel had for this show? (in any of its guises)

Anonymous said...

We are on our 8th season at the Santa Fe Opera (the last 7 as full season ticket holders) and saw Radamisto last night.

I would love to read some discussion of the stage direction/design choices.

We felt that this was the WORST set design ever. It was ugly when it was apparently supposed to be Baroque to the max, and the wall shifts seemed aimless. The elephant/tiger looked like a blob. The "mirror" set in the second half resulted in blinding flashes when doors opened or sections moved. The dragon? Why? The leopard stuck with arrows at the end? Gee, I wonder what THAT was meant to symbolize? Why not just hold up a big sign?

We found the stage direction distracting at best. Singers came onto the stage and stood (or crawled) around and then left. And Tigrane's Groucho Marx costuming - with Birkenstocks and socks - was just bizarre.

I found myself focusing on each singer and trying desperately to ignore the rest of the stage.

OK, rant over!

The orchestra was wonderful, the music beautiful and the voices sublime. If only....

Anonymous said...

Well, mimi, the "Still Not an Operatic Convert" post on LJ and Vox is mine, and there are a few comments on each site. Just be warned that I am a confirmed instrumentalist. :-)

Yes, I hated the stage direction, even if I liked the Baroque look of some of the set design. I actually liked the *concept* of the mirrored set, but you are right, the execution didn't really work.

I guess I'm too young to know what everybody means by "Groucho Marx costuming." Does that reference (which I have seen in another review) explain the choice at all? I just thought she looked like Indy's friend Sallah.