The little early music band that could has become something of a classical-music trope in the past couple of decades, as one small group after another stakes out its terrain and establishes a presence on a scene where there’s still plenty of room for growth.
Washington’s own entrant, Opera Lafayette, has been one of the more ambitious, focusing on little-performed or altogether forgotten operas, mainly French, and building from that a whole catalogue of recordings and a double season that involves performances in Washington and New York. For a still mom-and-pop-style company — it started in the basement of its founder, conductor Ryan Brown — its ambition can sometimes be almost terrifying, having extended from its original mandate to a full-length Gluck opera in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, a version of Mozart’s “Cosi fan tutte,” and forgotten French hits of the 19th century. On Tuesday, it took on its first Handel opera, “Radamisto,” directed and choreographed by the choreographer Séan Curran, in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.
It’s one thing to present the modern premiere of a work that hasn’t been performed since the 18th century. It’s another to jump aboard a bandwagon that can be hard to steer. Handel is a tough thing to bring off. The operatic conventions of 1720, when “Radamisto” was written, with one long aria upon another, can seem dramatically static to contemporary audiences, and long. (This one was three hours, with two intermissions and judicious cuts.) But Opera Lafayette, and Curran, have a good sense of how to keep things moving.
“Radamisto” is in any case one of the more dramatic Handel operas, with lots of love and jealousy and even attempted suicide, and Curran — following Opera Lafayette’s tradition of collaborating with choreographers — used his dancers smartly. Although the orchestra sounded a little scrappy around the edges, it followed Brown’s emphatic, affable conducting with energy.
Like many Handel operas, “Radamisto” involves lots of women playing men — roles often written for castrati, men who were castrated before their voices changed at puberty, giving them a distinctive, powerful high soprano. In the title role Tuesday, the soprano Caitlin Hulcup managed to give her voice a masculine cast, looking and sounding more like a countertenor, with the round, slightly falsetto-based vocal production, than a female singer. His wife, Zenobia, was written for a darker, lower voice: Hagar Sharvit brought a soft, slightly unsteady mezzo-soprano to a sensitive portrayal that sometimes felt vocally underpowered.
Curran kept the action clear and direct, with members of his dance company helping to move the black screens and three bright-red benches of Diana Balmori’s simple sets, and providing animated dance numbers in the interstices between acts. Set in an exotic Armenia, the action was moved to a more recent timeless time, though the plot is equally the stuff of fairy tale wherever you try to place it: The evil Tiradate is trying to conquer Radamisto’s kingdom and woo his wife, despite being married to his sister, Polissema. As Tiradate, the tenor Robin Yujoong Kim showed moments of real promise, though some struggle with the ornaments, while Alex Rosen sang beautifully and ardently as Radamisto’s father, who spends most of the opera as a frustrated prisoner. Two of Tiridate’s generals, both written as high soprano roles, are passionately in love with Zenobia and Polissema: Rather than have the women, Veronique Filloux and Nola Richardson, costumed as men, the production let them stay women, which felt perfectly normal in this context. Richardson sang with a particularly appealing freshness and directness.
Casting Dominique Labelle, the fine and well-established soprano, as Polissema was intended as a star turn to an artist who has appeared with the company many times. Her voice sounded thin and patchy in places, as if she might have a cold, though she is expressively and artistically a master, and the audience was happy to welcome her back. Her performance reflected the evening as a whole: It was a lot to take on, but they pretty much pulled it off.
Opera Lafayette’s next production will be Stradella’s “La Susanna” on April 22 and 23.