Handel turned to pure gold
English National Opera, London WC2
Blissful: the ENO’s world-class production of Radamisto has a superb cast and grandeur in every bar
It is hard to credit that a generation ago Handel's operas were thought to be worthy and dull - tuneful, but almost totally devoid of dramatic interest or even, for all but a specialist audience, of musical purpose.
Today, Handel is box-office gold. And one of the houses which has done most to revive the popularity which his operas had in their own day has been the English National Opera. Nicholas Hytner's production of Xerxes, which opened in 1985, was not the first ENO Handel but it was by far the most influential - at a stroke changing perceptions. I must have seen it over a dozen times, and would happily see it a dozen more. Since then, ENO has produced a string of the composer's masterpieces and built up a loyal following for its baroque operas.
So it is no surprise that ENO's latest Handel, Radamisto, is so stunning, a truly world-class production which induced in me a state of almost complete bliss for nearly three hours.
Laurence Cummings has things right from the very first bar of the overture - conducting with a tell-tale Handelian swagger and grandeur in every bar.
Radamisto's plot is free of almost all the bonkers twists and turns of most baroque operas. Essentially it involves a tyrant's crazed passion for the princess of the neighbouring state (who happens to be his wife's brother's wife), and how everything plays out. The ending is risible - it all turns out just fine, and the tyrant sees the error of his ways - but that does not matter. If Don Giovanni can survive its trite denouement, then so too can Radamisto. Besides, director David Alden keeps everything fixed on the moment, with the drama unfolding through the characters.
ENO has lined up a superb cast - six singers without a weak link but with two stand-out performances. Christine Rice is already a star name - she has been the Royal Opera's Carmen - and her Zenobia, the lusted-after princess, is flawless, with a cultured beauty of tone and real Handelian style. Similarly, American counter-tenor Lawrence Zazzo in the title role is compelling.
There will be finer drama at the ENO this season, but for sheer musical pleasure - and class - you will be hard-pressed to beat Radamisto.