Accustomed as we are to director David Alden's unforgiving austerity, the riot of pink and blue stencilled wall fabric 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 physicality of the production is pure Alden, with his Fritz Langian shadows and slow-mo stylisations.
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 Tigrane is straight out of Casablanca – a Sydney Greenstreet look-alike in a fez and a 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 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.
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 Tynan (Tigrane) and Sophie Bevan (Polissena) only adds to the frisson of urgency in their singing.
The suave, bestial Tiridate is played with irredeemable relish by Ryan McKinny. But the star turns come from Lawrence Zazzo (Radamisto) and Christine Rice (Zenobia), dramatically and musically a telling alliance of male and female altos.
It's official, then: Handel and ENO are good for each other.
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