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Opera Review: An Invasion, Tastefully Decorated

By Superconductor @ppelkonen
The Juilliard School presents Handel's Radamisto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Opera Review: An Invasion, Tastefully Decorated

Radamisto (John Holliday) consoles Zenobia (Virginia Verrez) in a scene from Handel's Radamisto.
Photo by Nan Merriman © 2013 The Juilliard School.

The Juilliard Opera is more than just a student ensemble--this is one of the most innovative companies at Lincoln Center. Each season, the students and guest artists at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater find ways to present a vast and diverse repertory. On Wednesday night, Juilliard opened its 2013 opera season with a new production of Handel's Radamisto by James Darrah. The performances, featuring the school period ensemble Juilliard 415, marked the conservatory debut of conductor Julian Wachner.
Radamisto premiered in 1720. This was was Handel's first opera for the King's Theater in London. The libretto is hoary by today's standards, something about a conflict between Thrace and Armenia and the lust of a conquering invader for the leading man's wife. In Mr. Darrah's spare, hypnotic staging, matters of plot were almost inconsequential, with the director allowing the voices to tell the story. The dull colors (that looked drawn from an interior decorator's palette) and steady orchestral pulse had a dream-like quality, culminating in Zenobia's attempted suicide--the dramatic pivot of the entire opera.
The plots of Handel operas always seem to move forward in the latter half of an evening, and this second act proved no exception to that unofficial rule. This act was thrilling as the characters stopped being static and began to struggle and conflict for supremacy of the realm. There were even welcome moments of irony and humor as Mr. Wachner picked up the musical threads and begun to spin a drama from them. Mr. Wachner drew skilled performances, not just in the showy arias but in the intermittent recitatives, allowing his singers to act with their voices and drive the plot forward when absolutely necessary.
This was a strong collection of young singers, led by the formidable countertenor John Holliday in the title role. Mr. Holliday has a potent silver sword of a voice, with a firm core that supports his coloratura flights above the stave. He brought a robust energy to the role of the wronged Radamisto, charting the character's triumph over adversity with outbursts of showy singing. But the best part of the night came before the interval, in the Act I finale. Here, Radamisto sings slowly and mournfully, believing his wife to have drowned. Zenobia's eventual rescue also played as a strange, subtle ritual as the curtain came down.  Mr. Holliday displayed pin-point control and sweetness of tone.
As Zenobia, mezzo-soprano Virginia Verrez was sweet and noble in her bearing, singing with a bright, ringing tone that soared above the period ensemble. Handel was writing in a style that equates florid singing with outbursts of emotion, and Ms. Verrez responded with an earthy, heartfelt performance. As Polissena, soprano Mary Fiminear seized her time in the spotlight in the second act, with a jaw-dropping aria that brought roars of approval from the audience.
The belligerent Tiridate was played by Aubrey Allicock, who swaggered and blustered through this thoroughly unsympathetic role. Tiridate's decision to dump Pollinea and chase after Zenobia touches off an invasion. The King is an ugly character with few redeeming qualities, and Mr. Allicock took on the task with gusto and a dark touch of humor in his voice. Although he had the shorter role, baritone Elliot Carleton brought weight to the role of the imprisoned king Farasmane. In the trouser roles of Fraarte and Tigrane, Pureum Jo and Elizabeth Sutphen made the most of their arias to display an athletic vocal ability that matched the rest of the cast.
Mr. Darrah presented this opera on a spare, open set (by Emily MacDonald and Cameron Mock) that consisted of one free-standing wall, a large brass basin or cistern on the floor and an assortment of chairs that served as furniture when necessary. For the most part the actors stood and milled about, in long, trailing costumes (by Sara Jean Tossetti) that matched the dull ochres and tarnished metals of the set. Occasionally, one would stand on a chair, giving the illusion of false height. The only other prop was a large rope, used by Tiridate to restrain prisoners as needed. Lighted projections gave life to watery surfaces and prison bars as needed, elegant solutions for the fast scene changes of the second act.

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