Music lovers can count on intriguing repertoire and solid performances when the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute stages operas at the NC School of the Arts. Such was the case for the last opera of the current season, Handel's Radamisto, presented in the DeMille Theatre. The entrepreneurial composer arrived in London in 1710 and had a resounding success with Rinaldo. His next four were modest affairs but his fifth London opera, Radamisto, in 1720, was to be the central attraction of the first season of the brand new Royal Academy of Musick, which hoped to exploit the craze for Italian opera. Handel was empowered to travel to the continent to bring in the super-star singers of the day, including the great castrato Senesino. The opera was the hottest ticket in town. Handel went out of his way to deliver the most elevated form of opera seria, with larger than life characters, heroic confrontations, and poignant trials of marital and familial love. Radamisto is one of the dozen or so dramatically and musically strong operas among the composer's 42 stage works.
Radamisto is set in Asia Minor during the first century and follows the bellicose actions of Tiridate, the King of Armenia, who has become obsessed with his sister-in-law, Zenobia, who is married to Radamisto, the son of Farasamane, King of Thrace. Tiridate invades Thrace but, after several episodes of capture and escape and confusions resulting from disguise, the faithful rulers of Thrace are returned to power by a revolution of Armenians, led by Prince Tigrane. (To complicate this just a little more, the Prince's love for Tiridate's Queen Polissena is unrequited, although he is aided in his quest by Tiridate's minister, Fraarte.)
Radamisto is an opera seria, a serious or tragic form of Italian opera in the 17th and 18th centuries. These operas feature the da capo aria form, which is "a three part aria in which the third section, after a contrasting second section, is a repetition of the first," according to David Ewen's Encyclopedia of Opera. During Handel's time, great singers were expected to ornament the third section as a show of skill and taste. The early music movement has revived period instrumental performance practice, but there has been no rush among its adherents to make the cut and restore the unique sound of castrati, high voiced male singers who were "unsexed" before puberty. In 1720, castratos were featured in the roles of Radamisto and Fraarte. The modern solution is to employ countertenors, mezzo-sopranos, or sopranos.
The strongest singers in NCSA's production of Radamisto were the noble Thracian rulers. Bass Jonathan Merritt, a fourth-year undergraduate at NCSA, made a vivid aural and visual impact. His tall, bean-pole figure radiated stage presence, and his dark sepulchral voice added gravitas to the role of King Farasamane. Two Fletcher fellows — mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley, as Prince Radamisto, and dramatic soprano Nichole Annis, as his wife Zenobia — welded involved acting and agile articulation to warm and seamlessly-even vocalism. Very close in vocal quality was baritone Jeffrey Seppala, who deployed his robust voice and vivid facial expression to embody the villainous Armenian King Tiridate. He is in his second year as a Fletcher fellow.
The remaining three cast members quickly overcame some slight edginess of voice or hesitant delivery as their voices warmed up. Soprano Christa Ruiz brought a gleaming high range to the role of the spurned wife of Tridate, Queen Polissena. Her arias in Acts II and III were sung with confidence and rich emotional depth. This was equally true of tenor Adam Ulrich, as the Armenian Prince Tigrane. His Act II aria revealed a pleasing sweet timbre and sincere and confident delivery. He portrayed Tigrane's deep conflicts, forbidden and unrequited love, and loyalty to the King versus moral scruples about an unjust war. As Tiridate's minister Fraarte, soprano Laura Black's brazen stance conveyed the testosterone of a bantam ready for a fight. Her bright upper range and pleasing timbre hold much promise. Merritt and Annis study with Marilyn Taylor while Black, Ruiz, and Foley are students of Marion Pratnicki.
There is not an unimaginative or an uninteresting bar in Handel's spirited score for Radamisto. The conclusion of the April, 1720, premiere was already more elaborate than the conventional brief stylized ending of opera seria. For the December, 1720, revival, which the FOI adapted, Handel wrote a striking extended quartet for the principals. This is the only quartet among all of his operas, and it foreshadowed developments of the Classical Era.
Musical Director James Allbritten led a small orchestra of around 27 players in a vivid account of the music, clearly and crisply articulated and carefully balanced with the stage action. The horns were terrific during the end of Act III, and the trumpets and percussion enhanced the martial actions in Act II.
The static and hierarchical staging of Handel's time, with soloists standing in their "places" and singing their arias, would be intolerable to 21st-century audiences. Stage Director Steven LaCosse kept all his soloists in constant motion, ranging across the fine unit set designed by Vicki R. Davis. An oversized chess set kept many idle hands busy in Act II! Matthew Covell's lighting designs were effective. The burning of the invaded city was beautifully suggested by economical means. This Roman Empire era story was updated with attractive and believable 18th-century European costumes. Nancy Goldsmith's supertitles were succinct and effective, and her program notes encompassed a lot of background in a limited space.