Radamisto, Handel's first opera seria for London and now on view at the Santa Fe Opera in an eye-filling, neo-baroque staging, was meant to astound audiences. It still does. That's what baroque style is mostly about: astonishment. Oscar Wilde got it right when he remarked, "Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess."
The Divine Oscar might have been describing baroque art in general. Over-the-top gestures, a delight in artifice and exaggeration, strained contrasts between opposites: These are but a few aspects of the style. Among buildings there's the Cuvilliés-theater in Munich and its cousin, Santa Prisca in Taxco. For painters, take Rubens (Alles ist fleisch!) against the elongated hyper-spirituality of El Greco. For Bach it's the Passions. For Handel it's Italian opera.
That's not small potatoes. Kings, princes, forsaken queens stalk Handel's stage. Our eyes are blinded by their magnificence. Our ears can scarcely credit the sounds of their voices. The ferocity of their passions takes us aback. People used to say that nothing happens in opera seria. In truth, everything happens there. It just happens on such an elevated level of artifice and intensity that we may find it incomprehensible.
Radamisto, for sure, qualifies as quintessential opera seria. Every character is noble, larger than life. The score makes superhuman vocal demands. Opportunities for spectacular costuming and stage effects abound. There's no room for moderation here. Excess is all, whether it be passionate grief or lust or fidelity or fury.
SFO's baroque specialist Harry Bicket leads a band that's slightly atypical for Handel opera. A couple of horns, never used in the London pit until now, provide a Water Musick-y flavor from time to time. He leads a lively, idiomatic, sometimes too loud reading of the significantly cut score, largely based on Handel's revisions for the second successful run of the show in December 1720. (On the topic of cuts in Handel, a wag commented, "His operas shouldn't be cut. They should be shredded." Tsk.)
Ace countertenor David Daniels takes the title role and sings nobly. Radamisto gets his share of florid passagework; Daniels makes it sound easy. But at the heart of the role are treacherous slow arias, among the most sublime music Handel wrote for the stage. In "Cara sposa" the hero comforts his wife, Zenobia, who fears capture and imprisonment by the amorous tyrant, Tiridate.
Then, falsely believing his wife to be dead, Radamisto bids her to be at peace in "Ombra cara," the best-known of the opera's music. "Qual nave smarrita," his final aria, expresses inconsolable grief at Tiridate's intended execution of the married pair. Daniel's impeccable legato phrasing, his honeyed tone, his projection of intense emotion convey the essence of this complicated role.
Deborah Domanski, after a tentative start, sang Zenobia skillfully, with conviction. Polissena, Tiridate's abandoned but loving wife, wavers between heartbreak and anger. As the sad queen, Linda Claycomb combined lovely, controlled slow singing with coloratura outrage. Her ferocious final aria, "Barbaro, partirò," raised the rafters. As Tiridate, Lucas Pisaroni gobbled up the scenery in a high-volume, furioso reading of the nasty tyrant.
Immensely talented Heidi Stober sang Tigrane, Tiridate's sympathetic second-in-command, overcoming with ease the serious technical challenges of the role. This, despite her anachronistic, Groucho-esque costuming. Kevin Murphy took the, in this version, thankless role of Farasmane, Radamisto's deposed royal father.
Stephen Wadsworth's charming 1993 SFO production of Handel's Xerxes set the action, not in ancient Persia, but in the London of 1738, the year of its premiere. Stage director David Alden tries a similar "contemporary" take on Radimisto, only now it's around 1720 in the Near East at the height of the Mughal Empire, the combat-ready Indo-Islamo-Persian dynasty that ruled vast areas of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran for more than three centuries. A deeply political animal, Alden doesn't rub our noses into then-and-now parallelisms, though there's no denying the violence inherent in the culture he depicts.
That's part of Handel's scheme, too, with a militant power-grab providing the basis for the opera's action. Alden, with designer Gideon Davey's flamboyant assistance, takes his visual cues from the exquisite, courtly paintings of the Mughal period, many of them celebrating courtship, combat and the hunt. Battle-hungry ravens of the militant first act are replaced by elegant peacocks in Tiridate's lavish second-act court.
Nearly all the onstage images, ranging widely from munificent costuming to eye-splitting sets to, even, a dead elephant and an equally expired panther, are documents of Mughal painting come to life. Those hugely extravagant, costly entertainments of Handel's time find an exotic counterpart in the visual excesses of this production.
When Mies famously said of modern architecture, "Less is more," he wasn't thinking baroque.
And when SFO's more-is-more production of Radamisto serves up this stunning baroque delicacy, it's Handel with, vocally and visually, everything on it.
9 pm Wednesday July 23
Various times and dates through Aug. 20
Santa Fe Opera
Hwy. 84/285, 7 miles north of Santa Fe