Sensitive negotiations with the past: Handel’s Radamisto, Guildhall School

Handel’s Radamisto has a fascinating social history: it was the opera that brought about the beginnings of a reconciliation in the British establishment, previously split by the bitter family tensions between King George I and his son, the Prince of Wales, who had finally fallen out altogether in 1717 over the King’s choice of godson for the Prince’s son George William (who tragically died shortly after the quarrel, aged only 3 months)   However, thanks to industrious political smoothing by Robert Walpole, the Princess of Wales and others, painful Royal family infighting eventually gave way to a public show of unity which saw both King and Prince attend the premiere of Radamisto together in April 1720. Taking his cue from this “prime example of Art as soft diplomacy”, director John Ramster sets the Guildhall School’s new Radamisto in a museum of ancient artefacts, where two opposing political factions are meeting with great ceremony, one led by a smart, blue-suited female politician, the other by a battle-scarred, medal-laden old soldier. They have come to watch a Baroque opera – and so have we. The evening’s entertainment is therefore delivered in part to the political audience on stage, and in part directly to us: a subtle acting challenge for the principals, to which this fine young cast rises with aplomb.

Ramster’s concept may sound complicated: it is, and it doesn’t always entirely work, but it has two bonuses. The first is inspiring a very fine contemporary museum gallery set designed by Louis Carver, lit with exceptional skill by Jake Wiltshire, whose ancient artefacts become props, and where eventually our characters will become artefacts, with sliding blocks which alternately mount and gracefully move the action. The relationship between the past world of the opera, and the present world of its performance, is negotiated with sensitive interest. The second bonus is that the grandees on stage get to exert their influence on proceedings, thus excusing some of the balder, weaker moments of Haym’s libretto, particularly the happy ending, which feels (and here plays) like a misconceived bolt-on, but Ramster cleverly allows his singers to ‘extemporise’ the happy ending in order to soothe the powerful egos of their patrons, therefore allowing it a kind of legitimacy.

Radamisto frankly needs a few of these figleaves: the plot is busy, but it isn’t brilliant. It’s one of those operas whose synopsis takes two closely-typed pages, mainly just achieving excuses for great arias along the way: key points are that everyone is desperately in love with everyone else, keen to kill various others, and repeatedly quarrel over who gets to die for whom (but, in the end, no one actually does). You do need to like Handel a lot, because there really is a lot of Handel on offer here: a good three hours, with two short intervals, and with the best will in the world, it feels long. There are also moments when Ramster’s concept begins to distract, rather than add: when Radamisto is finally left alone to deliver the stratospherically beautiful “Qual nave”, it’s wonderful to see that sometimes Handel’s arias do best when allowed to fill an empty stage with glorious emotion – which they do so well – rather than being accompanied by canoodling couples to emphasise a singer’s romantic failure (so unsubtle as to be merely irritating) or the female politican inexplicably kissing one of her aides during a fight scene (weird and not at all believable).

However, those great arias (that Haym has given Handel admittedly tenuous excuses to write) make it well worth sitting in for the long haul, with the Guildhall School Orchestra conducted from the harpsichord by Chad Matthias Kelly giving a generally accomplished account of the score, with timing just occasionally a little hairy. From the opening “Sommi Dei”, sung with cool and serene magnificence by the astonishingly gifted Margo Arsane (Polissena), to the final joyful fireworks of Zenobia’s aria to joy (Jade Moffat), the musical treats never stop coming. Arsane gives a performance of exceptional sincerity and beauty as Polissena, Tiridate’s abandoned queen, and easily becomes the emotional centre of the work, using tasteful vibrato like an artist’s palette to shade and accentuate her lines, negotiating switches through the fourth wall and back with the ease of a talented actor. Moffat’s fiery, sensible Zenobia thrills and charms by turns with her lyrical soprano and charismatic stage presence. As Radamisto, Chloë Treharne rather suffers in the first half by being hidden under the largest, fluffiest hat I have ever seen on a stage, which hampers her ability to make Radamisto’s emotions clear; once disguised as ‘Ismeno’ in simple trousers and waistcoat, Treharne’s acting rolls up to full power, the stunning ‘Qual nave’ only one of her several exceptional pieces of singing. Radamisto’s father Farasmane is conveyed with sonorous power by Bertie Watson in Guantanamo jumpsuit and fake beard. A charmingly suave and well-sung Fraarte from Elizabeth Skinner, and an appealingly lovesick Tigrane from Joanne Marie Skillett, with brilliantly observed male detailing, give us two compelling conspirators, while we have very jolly tyrant Tiridate in Dominick Felix, clearly revelling in pantomime villainy but landing like a cat on the serious side every time.

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