Composer: George Frideric Handel
Conductor: Julian Wachner
Director: James Darrah
Radamisto: John Holiday
Zenobia: Virginie Verrez
Tiridate: Aubrey Allicock
Polissena: Mary Feminear
Tigrane: Elizabeth Sutphen
Fraarte: Pureum Jo
Farasmane: Elliott Carlton Hines
I have never been a big fan of Baroque music, but I ain't no quitter either, so I keep trying on improving my relationships with composers such as Handel whenever I get an appealing opportunity to do so. And this is just what happened when some friends talked me into joining them for Radamisto at the Juilliard School yesterday afternoon. This would be my first foray with performances presented by the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, and I figured that it would be an interesting experience considering the quality assurance provided by the stellar reputation of the prestigious school and the prospect of hearing some hand-picked stars of tomorrow tackle a master of early music today.
The story would roughly revolve around warring kingdoms, ruthless tyranny, unrequited love and unwavering loyalty, all of which are definitely not concepts foreign to opera synopses, but offer as good a basis as any for an engaging musical development. The original three acts and four hours had thankfully been reduced to two acts and three hours, which no doubt could have used a little bit more trimming, but were at least a reasonable compromise.
My favorite thing about Baroque music is that the subtlety of the music typically gives the singers plenty of room to display their vocal skills. My main pet peeve with Baroque music are the endless da capo arias which, beside essentially repeating what has already been clearly established, have also the disadvantage of slowing down the action over and over again. So I sat down in the truly wonderful Peter Jay Sharp Theater mentally prepared for an enjoyable musical adventure and some unavoidable thumb-twiddling.
It did not take us long to notice that the singers, whom I consider the main component of an opera performance, were all refreshingly young and obviously talented way beyond their years. Starting with the two female leads, soprano Mary Feminear was an assertive Polissena, even as she was making some downright incomprehensible choices in steadily supporting her faithless, tyrannical husband Tiridate. Mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez was just as strong-headed as Zenobia, Radamisto's dedicated wife and Tiridate's lust object.
In the male cast, counter-tenor John Holiday was an admirable Radamisto, all righteousness and sacrifice. Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock was an appropriately menacing Tiridate, who will eventually, if rather unconvincingly, amend his ways. Baritone Elliott Carlton Hines gave Farasmane much dignity even as he was dragged in with ropes.
I am not big on trouser roles, but I will happily admit that the two sopranos impersonating Radamisto's aides, Elizabeth Sutphen as Tigrane and Pureum Jo as Fraarte, were totally believable as young men and in fine vocal form too.
The set was of the minimalist kind with a large standing wall, which was at its most interesting when at some point a few shadows were fleetingly projected onto it. This original idea was one of not many though, even if some understated lights reliably added nice touches to the scenery. The props consisted mostly in a few chairs, which in the second act provided for an awkward and kind of pointless, really, game of musical chairs, or were at best inconspicuous.
Under Julian Wachner's energetic baton, the uniformly brilliant orchestra readily responded in kind. Seeing young musicians give such an elegant and poised performance was certainly heart-warming, and one could only marvel at their obvious dedication to their art in a world awash in pessimistic opinions about the dismal state and precarious future of classical music.
I cannot say that this by all accounts satisfying musical performance of Radamisto has totally reconciled me with Baroque music, but there were certainly worse ways to spend a bitterly cold, relentlessly blustery Sunday afternoon.