Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Milton Court Theatre. 12 June 2017
Watching people watching opera was the premise behind John Ramster’s production of Handel’s Radamisto at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama’s Milton Court Theatre. A Heads of State meeting has been arranged in a museum, displaying artifacts from the ancient kingdoms of Armenia and what is now eastern Turkey. As they take their seats on opposite sides of the stage, the bristle between them is palpable. A crusty army figure on one side, and a thrusting young woman on the other, with the museum and security flunkies flitting about between them. And then the entertainment begins, in the form of Radamisto. The interaction between the two VIPs, as well as their own interaction with the opera, became key to the development of this production.
Radamisto, here performed in the first of its many versions, is not perhaps Handel’s finest moment. It marked his 1720 debut for the new Royal Academy of Music opera company, and took place amidst the real-life wrangling between King George I and his son, the Prince of Wales. The mind-bogglingly complex plot involves divisions and in-fighting within a royal family, with the addition of much bloodshed. Louis Carver’s stage design involved a clever series of five sliding plinths, either pushed or self-driven across the stage. Various vertical blinds completed the sets. Central to the set was a life-size depiction of the head of Hercules from the 1st century BC mountain top tomb-sanctuary of King Antiochus I Theos, pictured in the set above, and in location at Nemrut Dagi, below.
The artificiality of the VIPs meeting was reflected in the use of stylised gesture from the singers, whether singing, or just striking poses in the background. With a large cast of 16 extras, ranging from scene shifting to offering themselves up for ritual slaughter, the staging was rather busy at times, but the focus generally managed to remain with the principal protagonists. As the VIPs became more involved in the action (and with each other, with a ‘can I touch your medals’ clinch), reality began to break down, notably when the VIPs intervened to engineer the (admittedly) very silly ‘happy ending’ the Handel was obliged to provide.
Three of the roles had dual casts, the other four appearing in all four performances. My main criticism of the young singers is not a criticism of them, but of their singing teachers. Very few had anything like a Handelian voice, with most suffering from excessive vibrato and romantic singing style. With period singing and opera such a big career opportunity nowadays, I do wonder why young singers are pushed into developing such big ‘operatic’ voices, which are often not even suitable for the big romantic roles. Once that sort of vibrato develops, it can take years of experience for singers to learn how to control it, but by then they are jettisoned by their conservatory teachers to work it out for themselves.
The cast on the evening I went was Bianca Andrew (Radamisto), Jade Moffatt (Zenobia), Dominick Felix (Tiridate), Anna Sideris (Polissena), Jake Muffett (Farasmane), Joanna Skillett (Tigrane), and Elizabeth Skinner (Fraarte). All were fine singers, despite by concerns already mentioned, but I particularly liked the acting of Bianca Andrew in the title role.
Chad Matthias Kelly conducted, keeping the momentum going well. Apart from some intonation issues, the instrumentalists coped well, with particular contributions from Oliver Cave, violin, Sophie Haynes, cello, Janice Chen, oboe, and Stacey Newlin, bassoon. the harpsichord continuo was rather too busy for my tastes, and for period style.