Hill Auditorium to host rare Handel opera starring David Daniels
photo by Robert Recker
Daniels leads an all-star cast in a concert version of the opera Sunday afternoon, Feb. 17, at Hill Auditorium, presented by the University Musical Society. Baroque specialist Harry Bicket conducts the English Concert in a UMS debut.
In this 100th anniversary celebration of Hill Auditorium, “Radamisto” is, in at least one sense, part of the long story: concert operas were a regular feature of early UMS presentations at Hill.
Still, even considering the boom in baroque operas, which in the last few decades has brought Handelian gems like “Alcina” and “Giulio Cesare” both to the stage and concert hall, “Radamisto” resurgences are a rarity.
“This piece,” Bicket said in a recent phone call from London, “has perhaps taken a little longer to reach the mainstream.”
The fact is, it took quite a long time for there to be a mainstream. “Handel was more famous in his day for writing operas than anything else,” Bicket noted. But Handel operas fell out of favor—they were seen as difficult to stage, with their serious subjects and static A-B-A form arias—leaving a Handel canon in which “Water Music” and “Messiah” became far better known than the 40-something operatic gems Handel wrote.“In the last 20 years,” though, said Bicket, “we have found ways to stage and sing those pieces. It makes them fresh and takes a lot of the varnish off so that we can see what great pieces they really are.”
“Radamisto,” first aired in London in 1720—it was Handel’s first opera at the Royal Academy—has as its subject desire, dictatorship and personal infatuation at the court of the Armenian King Tiridate. At its premiere, critic Charles Burney dubbed “Radamisto" “more solid, ingenious, and full of fire than any drama which Handel had yet produced in this country."
The opera, said Bicket, includes an aria, “Ombra cara,” that Handel considered his finest—which is saying something. It also, he noted, includes the first real quartet in opera: “It foreshadows what Mozart did years later.”
What makes the opera timeless, said Bicket, is the underlying subjects Handel treats. “What it means to be truly love; to be a good ruler; to love somebody who is prepared to die and to commit suicide for you.
“It’s a bit like a Shakespeare play,” he added. “We recognize ourselves in the characters.”
Handel revised the opera extensively for two revivals—later in the year in 1720 and then again in 1728. Among the changes: setting the title role of Radamisto for a countertenor rather than a woman singing the role.
Handel, said Bicket, would have rewritten a lot of Radamisto’s material. “When the voices changed, he would rewrite an aria rather than transpose,” he said.
Also, “a new star wanted new material. For the second revival, a lot of the stuff was new, and dramaturgically tauter.”
Still, tautness does not necessarily mean quick and tidy: the current production runs just over three hours with two intermissions. Bicket doesn’t think the audience will be bored.
“I can be bored by something really short, as well,” he said. “Handel was a man of the theater and a great dramatist.”
The singers in the production—who include mezzo Patricia Bardon (as Radamisto's wife, Zenobia) and bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni (as Radamisto’s nemesis, Tiridate), among others—have worked together as a “Radamisto” cast before.
“They bring worlds to the characters,” said Bicket, who conducted “Radamisto” at Santa Fe Opera with Daniels and Pisaroni in the cast.