Review of the performance at O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin, 11/5/17.
Baroque opera is not exactly mainstream repertoire, and yet, the relatively small opera stage of Dublin has seen so far in 2017 already three baroque works: The Fairy Queen produced by RIAM, the recent Acis and Galatea by Opera Theatre Company, and now the Radamisto of Northern Ireland Opera directed by Wayne Jordan, with the Irish Chamber Orchestra conducted by David Brophy.
Let’s start by saying that NIO were quite corageous in putting together a production of Radamisto in the first place, which is quite different from the comparatively easy pastoral drama Acis and Galatea and from the possibly more melodic Purcell’s opera. If you are not familiar with Baroque opera, you may well be disoriented by its conventions: men roles taken up by women en travesti (or men singing with a female voice), lengthy da capo arias, tragic, convoluted historical plots followed by sudden and unlikely happy endings. As much as one may love the classics, this is material that screams for some sort of modernisation for the uninitiated audience, and Wayne Jordan’s direction delivers just the right amount of it.
The whole production – from marketing to costumes to direction – tries really hard to speak to a modern audience. With the advertisement announcing a “thrilling tale of sex, power and corruption”, we see on stage a relatively dynamic dramatisation of a work that is really static, not for lack of plot’s twists and turns, but by its own nature of baroque opera, with the music at its core. Jordan’s approach is undoubtedly clever and fascinating. While this is his first direction of an opera (his background is in theatre), he seems to grasp perfectly well the peculiar and defining attribute of abstraction of baroque opera. This understanding is manifested both through costumes and direction. While the costumes are a wondrous surreal pastiche of classical iconography freely and anachronistically mixed with variously modern imagery, the direction uses irony as both interpretation key and leitmotif. Nothing feels gratuitous, except maybe the extreme ridicule and clownification of the character of Tigrane, possibly going a step too far and unwarranted by the libretto.
But all the characters are, more or less explicitly, treated as marionettes (or mannequins, as the advertising picture meaningfully suggests). The introduction of a butler-like figure (Michael Patrick) wearing a tuxedo and acting often as a puppet master is a double-meaning metatheatrical gimmick: he stands, on one hand, as a director alter ego, portraying the palpable struggle of creating some drama and physical movement on stage; on the other, he represents Handel himself, treating singers as puppets completely enslaved to the music, the real, overwhelming hero of the show.
And it’s exactly on the quality of the singers and the orchestra, not on any even excellent staging, that ultimately lies the weight of a successful performance of an opera like this. Although Handel’s music aims at the intellect and not at the heart, there were some thrilling moments in the evening delivered by each and every singer. In particular, soprano Aoife Miskelly in the role of Polissena was consistently powerful and expressive. The two mezzo-sopranos shone each in very different ways: Doreen Curran with her rich and metallic coloratura delivered a poignant and believable Radamisto, while Kate Allen’s dramatic mezzo voice dominated the theatre in the role of Tigrane, emphasising the contrast with her clownish costume and movements and coming out almost unexpected. Sinéad Campbell Wallace was a good Zenobia.
The opera was translated into English from the original Italian. Although it’s always a bit of a violence to separate the music from its original libretto, I can see the necessity here due to the convoluted plot. But possibly the best option is always that of leaving the original language and providing English subtitles.
With all the bravura displayed in the evening by all of the cast, you couldn’t help but wondering what all this should have sounded like, back in the XVIII century, with the castrati for which the male leading roles were written: for how barbaric the practice was, together with Handel’s music they must have sounded out of this world. Which is exactly the nature and purpose of baroque opera: that of being something else, transcending reality and getting to the abstract heights of pure art.
Northern Ireland Opera made a commendable effort of tapping into unusual repertoire and making it more relatable to modern audiences through the use of irony and metatheatre, with a result both very clever and very enjoyable, as well as musically remarkable.