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The Dallas Morning News Scott Cantrell Column

August 3, 2008

By Scott Cantrell, The Dallas Morning News

Aug. 3–SANTA FE, N.M.–No soap opera could outdo the plot of Handel’s Radamisto.

Radamisto, prince of Thrace, and his wife, Zenobia, are lovingly devoted to one another. But Tiridate, king of Armenia, has the hots for Zenobia — to the extent that he’s ready to discard his own devoted wife, Polissena, and invade Thrace. Meanwhile, Tiridate’s commander Tigrane is in love with Polissena.

Now add the gender-bending conventions of baroque opera, which assigned heroic male roles to high voices: castrati (men whose high voices were preserved from childhood by castration) when available, otherwise women in male drag. In Santa Fe Opera’s new co-production, with English National Opera, Radamiso is portrayed by the countertenor David Daniels, Tigrane by soprano Heidi Stober.

Gideon Davey’s decors and costumes don’t exactly clarify the story. Arcing walls of blown-up damask patterns, a 1001 Nights painting and scuffed-up mirrors pivot in and out. Costumes mostly carry out the exotic 1001 Nights motif, but Tigrane is done up like a corpulent Groucho Marx in dirty white suit and red fez.

Huge ravens watch from above, later replaced by peacocks. In what looks like black rubber, a life-size baby elephant has been conquered by a tiger. Later, a leopard full of arrows hangs from above.

The point is supposedly the interchangeability of predator and prey. Stage director David Alden calls for lots of wallowing around on the floor.

But, say what you will, between the inscrutable but arresting visuals and dazzling singing, you rarely think to check the seat-back translations of the Italian libretto. What must have been a good deal of cutting and pasting brings in the opera at a mobile two hours and 45 minutes.

The opera really ought to be called Tigrane, since he’s the one who checks Tiridate’s worst impulses and in the end facilitates reconciliation. And the role is brilliantly sung by Ms. Stober. The other knockout in the cast is Luca Pisaroni as the chilling Tiridate, with a bass-baritone bold, well-formed and flexible.

Polissena is poignantly portrayed and sung with exquisite nuance by Laura Claycomb, a graduate of Highland Park High School and Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. Mr. Daniels sings creamily and nimbly, but I’d prefer a bit more cayenne in the tone.

Christine Rice, as Zenobia, looks fetching indeed in her harem costumes. She took awhile to get up to rhythmic speed and full force Friday night, but she certainly sings beautifully. Kevin Murphy is aptly imposing and sonorous as the Thracian king Farasmane.

Conductor Harry Bicket has the orchestra sounding like a crack baroque-specialist group. In music by turns dramatic and touching, the rhythmic vitality never slackens.

PLAN YOUR LIFE Repeats Thursday, Aug. 15 and 20 at the Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe, N.M. $28 to $180. 1-800-280-4654, www.santafeopera.org.

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