Virtuosic, yes, but sexy and violent? Handel? Director James Darrah thinks so, and from November 20 to 24, the production he’s directing of Handel’s seldom-performed opera Radamisto will be a case in point. The opera, which premiered in 1720, was written to an anonymous libretto and is the story of Radamisto (countertenor John Holiday), who’s in a bind because his wife, Zenobia (mezzo Virginie Verrez), has caught the eye of tyrannical King Tiridate of Armenia (bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock). Radamisto, Holiday told The Journal, “is a proud son, brother, and loving husband who is caught in what seems like a no-win situation, yet he commits to fighting for himself and all of those whom he holds dear.” Fortunately for him all ends well, an outcome that apparently appealed to concertgoers as the opera was quite popular in its day—it premiered in April 1720—though it eventually fell out of fashion. Robert Mealy, the director of Historical Performance, told The Journal that the music “is endlessly inventive and colorful, and very athletic as well—for singers as well as for players.”
This fully staged production is the second collaboration of Juilliard Opera and Juilliard415, and some of the participants talked to The Journal about the opera and the particular challenges of performing Baroque repertoire. They were the production’s director, Darrah; Artist Diploma candidate Holiday (in his first major role); Mealy; Historical Performance cellist Michael Unterman (performing his first Baroque opera); and Brian Zeger (M.M. ’81, piano), artistic director of the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts.
Does this this repertoire present any particular challenges?
James Darrah: I don’t find Baroque opera generally challenging at all because I’m completely obsessed with the period’s dramatic capabilities, its untapped potential, and the thrilling, visceral nature of the music. Many people I meet from worlds outside of opera are hesitant to take on seeing a Handel work, but he’s a complete dramatist and really adventurous—his operas are sexier, more violent, and more thrilling than some of the most often performed works in the standard repertoire.
Michael Unterman: As a member of the continuo team, the main challenges for me have to do with the show’s length [about three hours] in terms of being able to physically sustain playing nearly constantly for the entire show and never losing focus, plus being totally in sync with the singers through the recits and arias. Besides that, since we’re generally used to playing purely instrumental music, we have to be aware of the plot and the individual words at all times.
John Holiday: Baroque music is some of the most beautiful and vocally rewarding music to sing, but one of its singular challenges is making sure that one doesn’t just sing the notes on the page but also sings the gesture. Once the gesture is recognized, it becomes a bit easier.
Brian Zeger: Since ornamentation is integral to the style, each singer needs to learn to ornament in a way that fits the musical style, highlights the dramatic moment, and flatters their voice. Our coaches and, ultimately, the conductor will help guide them toward these solutions. Also, since there are very few noted dynamics and articulations in the score for the singers, they must rely on a knowledge of Baroque practice to help guide their choices. Learning this marvelous repertoire with conductors and coaches steeped in Baroque practice is as important as learning the skills needed for Mozart and Puccini.
What are some of the challenges involved in working with another department?
Zeger: Singers must be well prepared enough that they can respond spontaneously to the musical impulses around them, both from the conductor and the ensemble. Ideally, the players are also so well versed in the drama that they also participate in the storytelling.
Unterman: For most of the rep we come across in the Historical Performance program, we’re used to taking a more or less spontaneous approach, but this takes considerably more thought and preparation. I’ve been doing a ton of listening—usually on the subway—and studying the libretto so I know what the singers are going on about. But when it comes down to the performance, I think the key will be to reinject it with some of that spontaneous energy, to really live through the drama as it unfolds and bring each moment to life.
Robert Mealy: The chance to work with great singers is a huge education for our players, since so much of what we do as historically informed performers is based on text and understanding the musical rhetoric of a piece. Last year we collaborated with Vocal Arts on a tremendous early Handel project, his Trionfo, which was written when Handel was about the age of many of our students today. For all these collaborations, it’s very important for the players to know and understand the text as much as possible. Hearing an amazing singer bring these lines to life is a tremendous inspiration in thinking about singing with the bow for string players, and with the breath in woodwind playing.
Historical Performance has reached a point where it is thriving, and now we can look outward to connect with other departments like Vocal Arts and to become increasingly more integrated into the School as a whole. I’d love to see Historical Performance do a collaboration with the Dance Division next: not necessarily historical dance, but modern choreographers working with the incredible repertoire of the Baroque and making something new out of it. After all, the whole idea of historical performance is to make the old new again.
Why does it make sense for Juilliard to mount this particular production now?
Mealy: High Baroque opera is relatively infrequently done in America, probably for the same reason that opera in general is difficult to do: it cost a lot of money then, and it costs a lot of money now. Handel offers his own challenges of technical virtuosity for the singers, with long bravura lines of passagework. Radamisto itself has actually been heard recently in New York, in a concert version last year at Carnegie, but having the luxury of a fully staged version means that we can hear and see just how brilliant this opera is. Handel poured a huge amount of effort into it; it was his first opera for his new Royal Academy of Music, and he wanted to make as much of an impression as he could. All the arias in at are just amazing; the difficulty for a modern production is figuring out what to cut!
Darrah: This opera is one of Handel’s most intimate and human: a marriage between two fascinating people is essentially the central focus. Some of Handel’s other operas like Rinaldo, Teseo, and Amadigi are similar in that they dazzle with deftly drawn human beings, but also vastly different as they contain an added element of the supernatural for special effect: sorcery, magic, and the like. Radamisto exists without a sorceress or spells. It contains seven human characters with palpable ideas and wants and then takes us into the messy collision of their desires.