ENGLISH Touring Opera’s production of Handel’s 1720 opera Radamisto, loosely based on incidents in the Tacitus’ Annals of Imperial Rome, is a musical, vocal and visual triumph.
This opera seria, the first written by the German composer for the Royal Academy of Music in his adopted homeland, is the story of a tyrant, King Tiridate of Armenia, who becomes totally obsessed with Zenobia, the beautiful wife of his brother-in-law, Radamisto, and lets his lust drive him into ever ore despotic and brutal behaviour.
Set in Armenia in the early days of the Eastern Church, it is a story rich in noble Christian values of self-sacrifice, courage and forgiveness, but threaded through with decadence and cruelty.
James Conway’s production, played out in Adam Wiltshire’s stunningly designed sets and costumes, captures the opulence and power of the royal courts of Armenia and Thrace as well as the dangerous shale of the Balkan mountains.
With the excellent Old Street Band, conducted from the keyboard by Peter Whelan, the six outstanding singers bring this ancient story to vivid life, underlining the plangent beauty of Handel’s love songs, the passion of noble lovers and the vitriol of the villain.
Grant Doyle is the bragging and venal Armenian king, with Ellie Laugharne as his devoted and honourable wife, Polissena, John-Colyn Gyeantey (known by Iford audiences for his Tamino and Almaviva) as the courageous and love-lorn Tigrane, and the bass Andrew Slater as the fanatical Farasmane, deposed King of Thrace and father of Radamisto and Polissena.
There were similarly outstanding performances from countertenor William Towers, overcoming the slight constrictions of a cold, in the title role, and Katie Bray as his fiercely brave and faithful wife.
William Towers had recovered sufficiently on the second night of ETO’s all too brief Bath stay to take over the countertenor parts in the triple bill, owing to the illness of countertenor Benjamin Williamson.
This was a magical evening, infused with the melancholy that is typical of much early music, never more so than in the madrigals and Tenebrae settings of Gesualdo, the Prince-composer most famously remembered for the brutal murder of his wife and her lover.
The evening began with Bernadette Iglich’s production of Carissimi’s Jonas, a visualisation of the powerful story of a plea for forgiveness sung from the belly of a whale. The biblical text provided the Italian composer-priest with an opportunity to further develop the recitative style introduced by Monteverdi.
The second piece, I Will Not Speak, weaves exquisitely sung Gesualdo madrigals and responses with readings from John Donne, St John of the Cross, St Ignatius Loyola and the English Catholic martyr Robert Southwell.
This music sears into the soul – a jolt for anyone who thinks madrigals are pretty songs to be sung with garlands of flowers, skipping through the meadows!
The evening ends with the much more familiar Dido and Aeneas, given a dark and deeply tragic interpretation by director James Conway. Purcell’s music has its charming songs, but essentially this is the story of a Queen who falls in love, against her own instincts and the will of the gods. In this interpretationn, the tormented and abandoned Queen relives the dark days that have led to her death-in-life.
Sky Ingram gave a marvellously intense performance as the doomed Queen Dido, but every one of the small cast was completely and musically secure in their character – several doubling as witches and ghouls surrounding Frederick Long’s fiendish Sorceress.