NI Opera and Irish Chamber Orchestra at O’Reilly Theatre, Dublin, on 11 May 2017
After last month’s Acis and Galatea from OTC, now it’s the turn of NI Opera to present another Handel opera with the Irish premiere of Radamisto. It’s a fraught family drama of jealousy and dysfunction: Radamisto’s brother-in-law Tiridate, obsessed with Radamisto’s wife Zenobia, loses his mind, invades Radamisto’s kingdom, and takes his father-in-law prisoner. Tiridate’s long-suffering wife (and Radamisto’s sister) Polissena stays true to her wayward husband, despite alternative offers, while Zenobia would rather die than risk falling into his hands. A story of faith and virtue surviving against terrible odds, it filled houses back in Handel’s day, paving the way for the likes of Orlando and Rodelinda.
After superb shows like Oedipus at the Abbey, and the Gate’s The Threepenny Opera, it was only a matter of time before director Wayne Jordan would turn his hand to opera. It’s unfortunate, then, that most of the problems in this show stem from the production itself. Most of the action takes place in front of a static backdrop, the chilling image of a cave’s black void. The highly-stylised costume design and pale makeup for the singers suggests a puppet theatre or dolls’ house. This impression is, if anything, underlined by the presence of a mute ‘Actor’ (Michael Patrick) in black tie, a figure constantly running about the stage, rearranging furniture as well as the singers’ gestures and faces, even mid-aria.
Pallid and drained of colour, the unevenly-lit set frames a production that seems obsessively anti-theatrical, suppressing any possibility of sublimity or even spectacle. While this puts more emphasis on the (largely excellent) singing, even here the focus is often pulled away by the distracting presence of the ‘Actor’, at times prompting laughter from the audience. Any sense of dramatic pacing or focus slackens, and the story is left to grind on. It’s as if the production team, picking up on baroque opera’s reputation for artificiality, wanted to emphasise stiff stylisation above anything else, and so we lose the lightness and wit that so often propel Handel’s work in the theatre.
Miraculously, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace (Zenobia) manages to break free of these constraints to give a wonderful, impassioned performance. Her experience also shows through in her ability to project her text to the audience, a known challenge in this space which others in the cast find difficult, leaving much of Christopher Cowell’s translation inaudible. Vocally, Campbell-Wallace is well-matched by the expressive Polissena of Aoife Miskelly, while mezzo Doreen Curran makes the title role a figure of gaunt intensity. While baritone Richard Burkhard is vocally effective as Tiridate, his shallow characterisation leaves the drama with little room to move.
The Irish Chamber Orchestra, under David Brophy’s flowing direction, play as stylishly as ever, though the smooth sound of their modern instruments inevitably adds to the sense of a meanly-sliced expressive palette. Like Opera Ireland’s back-to-basics Imeneo of 2005, colour and light finally shine out in the last scene but, as in that production, it’s far too late. A missed opportunity.
Libretto: English translation (of the original by Nicola Francesco Haym) by Christopher Cowell
Director: Wayne Jordan; Designer: Annemarie Woods; Conductor: David Brophy
Cast: Doreen Curran (Radamisto); Sinéad Campbell-Wallace (Zenobia); Aoife Miskelly (Polissena); Richard Burkhard (Tiridate); Kate Allen (Tigrane); Adrian Powter (Farasmane)
Ensemble: Irish Chamber Orchestra (led by Katherine Hunka)
Images by Patrick Redmond