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George Fredric Handel’s “Radamisto” opened for the first time at the Santa Fe Opera last Saturday evening, only a dozen short of 300 years after its’ premier performance in London.
Although Beaumarchais would not write his revolutionary bedroom farce (“The Marriage of Figaro” also playing this summer!) for nearly 60 more years, the plots of the two operas seemed ironically similar: Lord-and-master spurns his beautiful, loving wife, to pursue less-powerful-but-more-admirable man’s also beautiful and faithful wife.
Everybody in the opera has something to say or sing about this, of course, and conspires to prevent it; until ultimately the lord-and-master sees the error of his ways, spouses reunite, and everyone sings a glorious finale!
The program talks about war and battles, but all the action onstage is violently emotional and highly stylized. Poor Queen Polissena, (married to the tyrant Tiridate but also sister to neighboring prince Radamisto), meltingly sung by Texan soprano Laura Claycomb, has to make her Baroque laments while crawling across the floor more than once, and even endure a callous rape at the hands of her husband, only to be brutally cast aside. While on other nights he sings the Good Guy Figaro, Venzuelan bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni rages about the stage in a pointed Van Dyke beard down to his waist and opulent, samurai-reminiscent robes as the lustful King Tiridate, whom everybody loves to hate, but his wife still adores him.
The real hero, and twist to the story, is Tigrane, King Tiridate’s military commander. Although his love for Queen Polissena is unrequited, he remains a man of principle, and repeatedly thwarts direct orders to kill Radamisto. Last year’s spectacular Folly in “Plate”, Wisconsin soprano Heidi Stober deserves double bravas for managing to shine passionately even through one of the strangest, ugliest costumes I’ve ever seen; which makes a beautiful woman look like a fat, bald man in a dirty white linen suit and red felt fez. Why? All the other principles were sumptuously robed in rich brocades and filmy silks, dripping with gold thread and sequins, and vaguely oriental to Arabic.
In fact, with the glaring exception of Tigrane, I must say I loved Gideon Davey’s costumes and scenic design. The King and Queen both had three changes, each more rich and magnificent than the last. Her silhouette was that of a conservative Middle Eastern Muslim woman, perhaps: a fitted, high-necked, long sleeved bodice, with a filmy, translucent full skirt to the ankles over harem pants; and topping it all off, amazing, almost (Dr.) Suessical topknot headdresses securing scarves flowing nearly to the floor of the same gossamer as the skirt. From black and gold, to sparkling avocado and tomato red with gold, to deepest emerald and gold, she looked like a million bucks even crawling on the floor! His heavy, x-shaped robes (more Oriental looking), went from black and gold, to black embroidered with enormous birds of bright blue and green (this was gorgeous), to an actual (well, no, not really) tiger skin thrown over white sequins, cheetah trim all around, and fuchsia lining.
Title character Radamisto, emotionally sung by the countertenor David Daniels from South Carolina, was more conservatively garbed in tunics of red and gold brocade, and a strange, Afghani-looking thing with big polka-dots and traditional hat; but then, he was supposed to be incognito! His highly desired wife, Zenobia, was bravely, desperately, and triumphantly sung by replacement mezzo Deborah Domanski, who has taken over the role and shown herself well up to it. Brava! Her delicious, midriff-baring costumes went from princess pink to silver blue, resembling luxurious saris without the long diagonal drape.
The Act I set was merely a series of moveable concave walls covered in huge red on black brocade; and perched atop were several much larger than life ravens, even extending to the side walls around the audience. In Act II, these ominous birds are replaced by peacocks scattered about, and the curved walls are reversed to reveal an enormous, medieval arabic-looking mural full of detail and color. The scene is a battle, centered on two combating horsemen, and in the lower corner, a woman holding a severed head! To the sides and back, the now convex walls are a smeary, shiny surface that reflects light all over the stage almost like water.
All in all, an extravagant feast for the eyes and ears, if you have the patience for Baroque opera: aria, recit, aria, recit, aria, with almost no duets, trios, quartets that Mozart wove skillfully throughout his operas more than 60 years later. But what a magnificent smorgasbord of operatic history we have this summer, each a pinnacle of their respective styles: Handel’s early 18th century Baroque, Mozart’s late 18th century Classical, Verdi’s late 19th century lush Romanticism, Britten’s mid-20th century modernism, and a 21st century American premier! Bravo Santa Fe Opera!