The English conductor Harry Bicket is well known for his skill at making modern-instrument orchestras like the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago sound like period-instrument ensembles. So it was a treat to hear him in action with his own period band, The English Concert, performing Handel's "Radamisto" at Carnegie Hall on Sunday. This is the first of three annual concert presentations of Handel stage works; next year's will be "Theodora," a dramatic oratorio.
The splendid 25-member ensemble, with Mr. Bicket leading from the harpsichord, brought pungent clarity and rhythmic swing to this 1720 score, a classic Handel cornucopia of varying moods and characters. The libretto, an 18th- century "education-of-a-tyrant" plot, features Tiridate, king of Thrace, who is obsessed with his sister-in-law, Zenobia, and wages indiscriminate war to get her. Zenobia and her husband, Radamisto, remain steadfast under threat of death and destruction, however, and when Tiridate's ally Tigrane finally turns against him, for his own good, the tyrant sees the error of his ways.
The singers offered a wonderful variety of vocal timbres. Joélle Harvey's bright soprano gave Tigrane an optimistic quality, contrasting with the lush, womanly sound of Brenda Rae as Polissena, Tiridate's scorned but faithful wife. As Tiridate, Luca Pisaroni deployed his handsome bass-baritone with assurance, but he could have used more punch and venom. The persecuted couple have the moments of greatest tragedy, and they made the most of them. As Zenobia, mezzo Patricia Bardon's somewhat covered, throaty quality bloomed into more color and beauty as the opera progressed. David Daniels brought exceptional pathos and intensity to Radamisto's laments. "Ombra cara," sung when he thinks Zenobia is dead, showed off his peerless legato singing; that, together with his lightning runs and vivid ornaments in the heroic aria "Vile! Se mi dai vita," demonstrated why he remains the premier countertenor exponent of this repertory. David Kravitz ably completed the cast as Farasmane, father of Radamisto and Polissena.
The orchestra supplied as much character as the singers—providing solo instrumental colors, such as oboe and cello, in particular arias; flourishing trumpets and drums for martial numbers; and intensifying a mood, such as the total hopelessness of Zenobia's despair aria, "Troppo sofferse." Splendid as it was to hear this fine ensemble onstage, however, the balance issues of concert opera are magnified in this repertory because of the subtleties of the vocal parts, particularly in such a large hall. One of Mr. Daniels's arias, with its lower tessitura, didn't project, and Ms. Harvey's sometimes excessive vibrato seemed calculated to reach the back of the hall, no matter what. It all made me wish for the logical next step for New York: regular staged productions of these operas, in an appropriately sized theater with a pit, starring a period-instrument band, conductor and singers as fine as these.