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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Friday, February 8, 2019

Opera Review: The Play is Not the Thing

Opera Lafayette returns to New York with Radamisto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Married life: Zenobia (Hagar Sharvit) and Radamisto (Caitlin Hulcup) are on the run in Radamisto.
Photo by Louis Forget © 2019 Opera Lafayette.
The world of opera was very different in 1720. That's the first take-away from Radamisto, the Handel opera that made a rare stage appearance on Thursday night at the Kaye Playhouse. The performance was a visit from Opera Lafayette, the intrepid Washington D.C. company that specializes in reviving stage works from the 18th century. This was their first excursion into Handel, and it was generally a success.

The plot of Radamisto is labyrinthine, made more so by the similarities between characters' names. The title character is the son of a Thracian king. Before the opera, his city is invaded by the Armenian king Tiridate. Forced into exile and believed to be dead, Radamisto is seperated from his wife Zenobia when she is captured by Tiridate. Disguising himself, they are reunited when...Oh, to hell with it. It has nice music and it ends happily.

Handel's operas are not really about their complicated plots but about the singing and crisp orchestral riffing that accompanies the long series of arias. (There are very few moments when the characters sing in ensemble. There is no chorus.) The composer was the master of the da capo aria, a style that expresses the main melody once and then takes it from the top, allowing the singer room to add fioratura, melismas and other vocal embellishments. A good rule of thumb is to use the floridity of a singer's performance to gauge the emotional state of the character they are playing.

Radamisto has a lot to be upset about in this opera. But in Caitlin Hulcup's performance, the exiled prince was all heroic centering and surface calm. This set up his one emotional outburst in the second act: the aria "Ombra cara mia sposa", in which Radamisto believes his wife to be dead. Ms. Hulcup penetrated the depths of grief and loss over a slow, pulsing orchestra, using her chest voice to memorable effect. Appropriately heroic joy was found in the Act II finale, as Radamisto was reunited with Zenobia.

As Zenobia, Hagar Sharvit was another standout, seizing the spotlight for "Son contenta di morire." She was captured in the middle of Act II and spent much of the rest of the opera fending off the furious attentions of the usurper Tiridate. Tiridate was played by the tenor Robin Yujoong Kim. Although looking silly in a Pee Wee Herman suit and fez (there were a lot of fezzes in this production as the opera is set in what is now Turkey), Mr. Kim played a credible villain, driven by internal lusts to engage in lust and depravity and at one point nearly ordering up the murder of the entire cast.

Baritone Alex Rosen played the deposed Thracian king Farsamene, father of Radamisto and Polissena. (See, we told you the plot was complicated.) Mr. Rosen sang with gravitas despite spending most of the opera in captivity. Mr. Rosen also had to deliver his "Son lievi le catene" while in literal bondage, held by two long ropes by the wrists. It was impressive how the singer and the two dancers holding his restraints were able to coordinate the difficult physical movements with the pungent, rhythmic aria. An uncooperative piece of stage furniture also chose that scene to break, creating unexpected peril for the captured king. No one was hurt.

Dominique Labelle is the known quantity in this cast, singing the part of Polissena. She is the spurned wife of Tiridate and spends most of the opera trying to keep her bloodthirsty husband under control. Her scathing "Barbaro, partiro" brought down the house in the third act. In the two trouser roles of Tigrane and Fraarte, Véronique Filloux and Nola Richardson overcame bland characterization and similar costumes to deliver distinctive performances. The failed bench aside, Séan Curran's simple presentation, minimal sets and joyous choreography kept the actors moving and the storyline from bogging down.

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