When George Handel's Radamisto debuted at London's Royal Academy of Music in April 1720, advance buzz was so great that gentlemen offering fortunes for mere gallery seats were turned down and ladies fainted (overheated auditorium, or ecstasy at young Handel's stately score?). Nearly three centuries later, Opera Theatre of St. Louis' version of this epic is quite faintworthy. RAM was founded to showcase opera seria, an exciting new artform that offered long solo declamations ardently festooned with vocal ornamentation and convoluted plot. In the case of Radamisto (loosely based on a story by Tacitus), King Tiridate of Armenia plans to kill Radamisto, prince of Thrace, who's also his brother-in-law, in order to steal his wife, Zenobia. Meanwhile, Tiridate's wife, Polissena, is adored by Tigrane (one of the two roles played by women in this show; the other is Fraarte, Tiridate's brother). At times the tale is reminiscent of the Iliad (stolen wife) and the Odyssey (when Radamisto rescues Zenobia, he's disguised as a servant, but here his wife, not his hound, recognizes his voice).
Director/translator James Robinson's English text (adapted from the original Italian and Terence Best's acclaimed critical edition) serves this production well, but even the most innocuous lines develop an absurdity of their own on the nth repeat -- albeit a beguiling one. For example, early on, the villainous Tiridate (David Evitts) crows, "In the slaughter of his rivals a great sovereign may delight," 15 times (we couldn't help counting), not to mention six asides of "He may delight" and several choice "Ha-ha-ha's." What a baddie! But overall, Handel's themes, which range from the majestic to the mordant to the morbid, are tuneful and masterly, and the emotions conveyed have plenty of psychological depth, which is accented by a truly inspired and gorgeous production.
The second act features most of the 10 arias and at least two of the shimmering duets that Handel added a year later. His first purpose was probably to capitalize on the star power of newly available singers -- chiefly the legendary castrato Senesino, just arrived in London, but he distanced himself from formulaic restraints of the Italian style. First, he obviously became far more comfortable with melodic recitativ and aria formats. (The path to Mozart's operatic genius is clearly blazed.) In OTSL's production, this is highlighted by a wise reduction in ornamentation and the warm tone of the contemporary-instrument accompaniment by members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, under the precise and sympathetic baton of Grant Llewellyn.
Second, Handel recovered a level of comfort with polyphonic style that popular Italian opera of the early 18th century had all but obliterated from the European scene (Handel himself is far from blameless in this). One hears this most strikingly in Radamisto's late duets with his wife, Zenobia. Neither singer follows any discernible melody, but the lovers' voices intertwine with a desperate intensity that recalls and perhaps rivals Monteverdi's late madrigals.
The company is glorious, and this is an opportunity to hear a gleaming countertenor by Ryland Angel, who sings Radamisto with aching sensitivity and whose voice grew in strength and authority during the second act. Tonna Miller as the luckless Polissena and Deanne Meek as the doomed Zenobia have spirit aplenty as the wronged wives -- Miller's lyric tone and dignity makes Tiridate's maneuvers all the more insufferable, and Meek's voice has a richness and resilience, especially in her duet with Radamisto, in which she begs him to kill her -- "I beg you to find courage." Madeline Bender and Lauren Skuce as Tigrane and Fraarte, respectively, gender-switch convincingly enough, and Daniel Cory plays and sings the older Farasmane, king of Thrace, remarkably acutely.
Finally, a word about the frankly stunning set design. Allen Moyer has gone minimalist and uses two massive sliding walls to great effect. Spear points bristle from the inner walls yet manage to evoke castle battlements, a winter forest and the leading of a medieval stained-glass window. Other scene shifts are evoked with dark wooden-framed glass cases that are wheeled on and off. These are filled with odd but appropriate items that invite meditation on further meaning: a stuffed cheetah, a bridal veil, even a collection of butterflies (with the monarch in the center). And Martin Pakledinaz's choice of late-Victorian costumes saves the production from what one must assume could be the confusingly unisex garb of first-century Armenia. All in all, Radamisto is memorable and mesmerizing, with plenty to swoon over.
Radamisto continues through June 22.