Handel Radamisto, English National Opera

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The Independent Culture

Accustomed as we are to director David Alden’s unforgiving austerity, the riot of pink and blue stencilled wall fabric (designer Gideon Davey) that assaults the eye at the start of his staging of Handel’s Radamisto is in itself positively exotic.

The Asia Minor setting demands it, of course, and the costumes – a silken spin on those lavish paintings we know so well – reflects it. But the ritualised physicality of the production is pure Alden with his trademark Fritz Langian shadows and slow-mo stylisations. It’s like an Alden remake in glorious technicolour.

An everyday tale of power play and brutality, Alden’s Radamisto (an ENO co-production with Santa Fe Opera) nods both to Asian theatre and contemporary cinema. The duplicitous character of Tigrane is straight out of Casablanca - a Sydney Greenstreet look-alike in a fez and a cheap linen suit. That the singer encased in that fat-suit is none other than the elfin Irish soprano Ailish Tynan further adds to the comic irony of the cross-gender casting. Quirky grim humour is very much an Alden thing with faceless warriors here peering over the parapets of the set (with its incongruous wallpaper) as if decapitated while birds of prey perch nearby. Naturally those birds become peacocks with prospect of peace and the walls are suddenly lushly reflective. A fire-breathing serpent and savage animalistic sculptures all add to the undercurrent of barbarism.

So it looks great – how does it sound? Better. Laurence Cummings directs with his customary verve and he’s made very free with embellishments that have his sopranos pipping the high Bs and Cs like there was no tomorrow. The element of danger and risk in this for both Ailish Tynan (Tigrane) and Sophie Bevan (Polissena) only adds to the frisson of urgency in their singing. Both are lyric voices in the process of exciting growth but both should beware pushing.

The suave and bestial Tiridate is played with irredeemable relish by Ryan McKinny: great words, powerful presence, authoritative voice. But the star “international” turns come from Lawrence Zazzo (Radamisto) and Christine Rice (Xenobia), dramatically and musically a really telling alliance of male and female altos. Rice’s luscious aria with aching oboe obbligato “When will cruel fortune free my heart” was a highlight as were Zazzo’s great laments. “Soul and Shadow” was soulful and searching, his opulent and beautiful countertenor at the service of heartfelt musicality. Very special.

It’s official, then: Handel and ENO are good for each other.