Nearly 30 years after a Handel opera last played there, Carnegie Hall presented The English Concert opening a three-year opera-oratorio project on Sunday afternoon with Radamisto. The event just missed honoring the composer’s 328th birthday on Saturday; unfortunately, the performance also just missed.

Written in 1720 as his contribution to the opening of the Royal Academy of Music, Radamisto differed markedly from the operas Handel had written since he burst onto the English scene in 1711 with Rinaldo. Like that opera, Teseo and Amadigi also featured glittering, ultimately defeated sorceresses and lots of opportunities for spectacle. However, with a libretto based on historical figures drawn from Tacitus, Radamisto became the paradigm for many operas that followed featuring noble royal characters confronting violent, life-threatening situations.

The villainous king of Armenia Tiridate has become obsessed with Zenobia, wife of Radamisto, son of Farasmane, king of the neighboring state of Thrace. Despite his being married to Radamisto’s sister Polissena, Tiridate has invaded Thrace in hopes of abducting Zenobia. The opera deals with the besieged couple’s efforts to evade capture by Tiridate, most memorably Zenobia’s dramatic plunge into a river after Radamisto fails to act on his wife’s plea to kill her so that she will not fall into the enemy’s hands—an event that actually occurred. Through the machinations of Tigrane–whose love for Polissena encourages him to betray Tiridate, Radamisto and Zenobia are reunited, and, moved by Polissena’s steadfastness, Tiridate undergoes a somewhat implausible reversal apologizing for his gross transgressions and reconciling with his wife.

Like many Handel works, Radamisto was revised extensively and exists in several versions. However, it’s atypically held that the second edition surpasses the first. Attended by King George I (German-born like the composer) to whom the opera was dedicated, its April 1720 premiere was highly successful despite the absence of several important Italian singers hired by Handel for the Academy but who had not yet arrived in England.

By the end of the year, they had, so the composer made extensive alterations to the score. Radamisto, sung by a female soprano at its premiere, was adjusted down for the alto castrato Senesino. Soprano Margherita Durastanti who had originally sung Radamisto became Zenobia for the revival. The villain Tiridate was transformed from tenor to bass for the formidable Carlo Boschi. Beyond some simple transpositions of existing arias, Handel supplied a forward-looking quartet, as well as an additional duet for Radamisto and Zenobia and ten new arias. Unfortunately he dropped the extensive dance music he had included in April, which included the seraphic Passacaille, one of Handel’s most ravishing orchestral pieces.

This December 1720 revision was—more or less—what we heard at Carnegie.

Although the opera is probably best known for “Ombra cara,” Radamisto’s moving lament over his (supposedly) dead wife,

it is the striking arioso “Sommi dei” sung by Polissena that begins the opera that seems to have caught the imagination of singers, particularly those rarely otherwise associated with Handel, like Kirsten Flagstad, who recorded it. Eileen Farrell

and Leontyne Price programmed it often in recitals.

Surprisingly of the three recordings of Radamisto (I have successfully avoided an older German recording on Berlin Classics that transposes down the high male roles for basses), the less revered first version appears in two fine versions, including a fine BBC studio performance under Roger Norrington and featuring the splendid Zenobia of Della Jones and Janet Baker as Radamisto, her final Handel role.

One of Alan Curtis’s best Handel recordings features Joyce DiDonato as Radamisto heading a sterling female cast of Maite Beaumont, Patrizia Ciofi, Dominique Labelle and Laura Cherici. However, American tenor Zachary Stains, best known for his naked Ercole in Vivaldi’s opera Ercole sul Termodonte, strains at Tiridate where only his voice is offered up.

Nicholas McGegan’s series on Harmonia Mundi based on performances at the Göttingen Handel Festival provides the sole recording of the second version.

Remarkably consistent in his taste for mediocre countertenors, McGegan casts an aggressively hooty Ralf Popken in the title role. However, soprano Juliana Gondek is a moving Zenobia while Dana Hanchard’s distinctively dusky Tigrane makes up for Monika Frimmer’s annoyingly boyish Fraarte. Michael Dean provides an aggressive if lightweight Tiridate. McGegan does at least make available the sole recording of the famed quartet (surely one of the principal reasons for the preference for the Senesino version).

Carnegie’s announcement of a three-year Handel series by the English Concert was particularly gratifying as its programming at the Stern Auditorium has been remarkably unimpressive regarding period performance unlike its usually sold-out series in Zankel Hall. It was also a happy thing to see Handel opera to return to Carnegie after an embarrassingly long absence particularly after the incomparable series mounted there for the 1985 tricentenary which included such gems as Marilyn Horne’s first-ever Orlando, Tatiana Troyanos and June Anderson in Ariodante and what may be the greatest Handel performance ever in America, Semele with John Nelson conducting Kathleen Battle, Horne, Sylvia McNair, Jeffrey Gall, Rockwell Blake, and Samuel Ramey. It was hard not to recall that starry evening (by all means search out a copy of its NPR broadcast) during Sunday’s Radamisto which occurred 28 years (and one day) after that indelible Semele.

As a nearly lifelong devotee, I continue to be irked by the need in the US to treat Handel’s operas as a rare hothouse flower. However, a sizable, audibly enthusiastic audience filling Carnegie Hall for Radamisto might suggest that this special pleading has become unnecessary.

I had naively assumed that a Handel series by one of the world’s major period orchestras would guarantee an uncut performance of a great work performed only twice previously in New York City: the 1980 premiere (also at Carnegie Hall) by Stephen Simon of the first version with veteran Handelian Beverly Wolff in the title role and the underrated Hilda Harris as Zenobia (I have a recording), followed by a 1992 installment in Will Crutchfield’s ambitious but sadly truncated Handel series at Mannes College (I attended the latter but don’t recall which version was performed).

Since the Chysander Radamisto is a bit of a mess, I assume The English Concert employed the new Bärenreiter in preparing a performing score possibly also used for the David Alden production in Santa Fe (which also traveled to the English National Opera) conducted by Harry Bicket and starring David Daniels and Luca Pisaroni. Unfortunately, the character of Fraarte is entirely omitted and Farasmane loses his only aria (a mere four minutes). Sunday also featured other baffling, pesky cuts, particularly the short duet for Radamisto and Zenobia (two minutes) just before the final coro which was sliced by a third since there was no Fraarte to sing his verse with Tigrane.

More troubling was assigning the role of Zenobia to a contralto, since Handel wanted a contrast between Radamisto and his wife. In the first version, Radamisto is a soprano, Zenobia an alto; in the Senesino revision, they are reversed. While there was a 1721 revival with Senesino and Anastasia Robinson, the original contralto Zenobia, no score has survived, so producing a Radamisto with two altos would appear to contradict Handel’s intentions, since Floridante appears to be the only Handel opera in which both hero and heroine are altos. The lack of contrast between the voices was particularly damaging to the great duet that ends act 2.

Beginning with her Orlando with Les Arts Florissants at BAM, Zenobia is the fifth Handel role I’ve heard Patricia Bardon sing over the past seventeen years. I must confess that it’s a voice I’ve never warmed to. After that Orlando I had hoped the Irish singer’s plummy contralto might be better suited to oratorio, but I didn’t care for her Storgé in a 2002 Jephtha under René Jacobs at Alice Tully Hall either. Although I’ve appreciated her dramatic commitment in subsequent Handel performances, I continue to find that her rich middle voice can’t distract from the hollow bottom and uncontrolled top.

Unfortunately her lugubrious Zenobia on Sunday failed to stir this listener’s heart, and she was particularly disappointing in “Quando mai, spietata sorte,” the sublime cavatina which opened act 2 where Hannah McLaughlin’s piercingly beautiful obbligato outshone Bardon.

Since first hearing Daniels’s astonishing breakout Nerone in Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea at Glimmerglass in 1994, my thoughts about his upcoming appearances has evolved from eager anticipation to mild dread. His early performances and recordings have assured that Daniels deserves much of the credit for transforming the public’s perception of what a countertenor can be. However, as his voice has grown increasingly unreliable, he seems more and more detached, going through the motions with a only surface connection to the music. A singer friend of mine has said that much of Daniels’s recent singing sounds like that of an old woman, and indeed there were moments on Sunday where I was reminded of the elderly rasp of the latter-day Deborah Voigt.

After his most recent MET Orfeo and Prospero in The Enchanted Island, I feared the worst for his Radamisto. Happily it proved to be his most satisfying recent appearance. After a weak “Cara sposa” (shorn of its da capo?) and a particularly effortful “Perfido, di a quell’empio tiranno,” his moving, hushed “Ombra cara” showed a welcome return to form. However, the subsequent “Vanne, sorella ingrata” laid in the weakest part of his voice, its quick coloratura becoming a nearly inaudible smear. His best singing arrived in the final act, particularly a touching “Qual nave smarrita.”

It’s too bad that Bicket rushed Daniels through my favorite aria “Dolce bene di quest’alma” preventing him from making it the mesmerizing moment it can be.

Predictably, Pisaroni was vigorously commanding in the wide-ranging part of Tiridate, even if he occasionally overdid the evil “moustache-twirling.” However, the two sopranos, less known to New York audiences than the others, provided the most pleasing singing of the afternoon. As Tigrane, Joélle Harvey revealed an agile, intriguingly complex soprano. Having been unimpressed with her Galatea from a telecast from the 2011 Aix-en-Provence Festival, I was pleasantly surprised by the infectious excitement Harvey injected into the proceedings, particularly with her third act showpiece “S’adopri il braccio armato” swiped from the omitted character of Fraarte.

Making a notable return to New York where she studied at The Juilliard School where I saw her in 2007 as a fiery if uneven Arminda in Mozart’s La Finta Gardiniera, the strikingly tall and glamorous Brenda Rae dominated the first act as Polissena, the beleaguered wife of Tiridate. Having triumphed as Cleopatra in Frankfurt’s Giulio Cesare late last year, Rae had no trouble with the extravagant coloratura of “Barbaro! partirò” despite a richer, plusher voice than one normally encounters in a Handel soprano.

Though it has rarely (if ever?) performed opera, The English Concert, founded by Trevor Pinnock and about to celebrate its 40th anniversary, anchored the performance with thrillingly vibrant playing throughout. Particularly impressive was its principal cellist Joseph Crouch who joined with Bicket and theorbist William Carter in accompanying the recitatives and played an eloquent obbligato to Zenobia’s “Fatemi, oh Cieli.” The natural trumpets and horns were splendidly raucous in their brief appearances. This fine group clearly inspired its musical director in quite the best orchestral performance of any opera I’ve heard Bicket conduct.

My major quarrel with Bicket was the generally awkward ornamentation throughout. Rather than flatter the singers, more often than not it caused them to struggle with each repeated A section. The worst instance was Tigrane’s third aria “La sorte, il Ciel amor” where the da capo rewrote the line to a degree that it no longer made any musical sense and worked against rather than for Harvey.

New York should be grateful as Bicket’s was clearly superior to last month’s production of Radamisto at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien which was broadcast on Saturday. Conducted by Jacobs on his absolute worst behavior, it featured a tenor taking the soprano role of Tigrane, as well as both Bardon and Daniels, although he canceled the broadcast performance, replaced by a game, yet green countertenor, Rupert Enticknap.

By coincidence I arrived home from Radamisto to find that a dear European friend had emailed me a recent all-Handel concert by marvelous French contralto Delphine Galou (surely today’s best Zenobia) including her incendiary “Son contenta di morire.” Luckily, we will be able to hear Galou in the flesh this fall when she makes her US debut singing Galatea in Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo with Emmanuelle Haïm’s Le Concert d’Astrée at Alice Tully Hall.

All in all, it added up to an affecting if uneven Radamisto. One was grateful for it, but all afternoon I couldn’t help but contemplate the odd monopoly that has come to pass in eastern North America. Beginning with their collaboration in New York City Opera’s 2000 Rinaldo, it seems that every Handel opera features Harry Bicket and David Daniels. Of the five Handel productions at the MET this century (including the upcoming new Giulio Cesare), four feature Bicket, three Daniels. Chicago recently did Hercules and Rinaldo—both with Bicket-Daniels, and Toronto next season sees a revival of the Sellars Hercules, again with Bicket-Daniels. And of course next year’s presentation by The English Concert at Carnegie, Theodora, will be conducted by Harry Bicket with David Daniels as Didymus.

It’s not that Bicket and Daniels have nothing to offer; however, such unvarying programming displays a depressing lack of imagination by the presenters involved. That American audiences are invariably limited to a single exemplar—particularly one past his best—seems perverse and unnecessary. Surely anyone with an interest in 18th century opera knows there are many fine countertenors (and mezzos) singing today. Numerous conductors excel in baroque opera, even with modern instrument orchestras. I’ve attended superb Handel performances in Munich under Ivor Bolton and in Berlin with Christopher Moulds, to name only two.

And why does Carnegie believe in importing only English groups like The English Concert or Arcangelo (which does Apollo e Dafne this fall at Zankel) to perform Handel? How about inviting Fabio Biondi and Europa Galante to take a break from their yearly Vivaldi concerts? Or letting Akademie für Alte Musik tackle Bach’s contemporary? New York might just be treated to some appealingly different takes on Il Caro Sassone if someone could just try thinking out of the box.

Photo: Robert Recker