Riccardo Primo - Britten Theatre, 26 March 2012 (London Handel Festival)
The London Handel Festival dug deep into the leftovers bin for their annual staged opera this year.
It's fair to say Riccardo Primo isn't an inexplicably overlooked masterpiece, but it's better than its obscurity might suggest - and like any Handel rarity, worth hearing at least once.
Unfortunately it wasn't done any favours by a production which exposed and often exacerbated the dramatic weaknesses that bar its wider currency. In compensation, musical justice was done to the lively, imaginative score by Laurence Cummings and the London Handel Orchestra, together with some talented advanced-level singing students from the Royal College of Music.
The creaky plot imagines Richard the Lionheart rescuing his fiancee Costanza from Johnny Foreigner's clutches after she becomes shipwrecked on Cyprus on her way to their wedding. Predictably, there are disguises, mistaken identities and a five-person love triangle (a love pentangle?). The egregious trumpeting of English virtues is less predictable, but then the opera was first performed in the year Handel himself became British.
Given the period, I'd been crossing my fingers for some proper medieval armour in the style of the Teutonic knights from Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky.
Disappointingly, but probably correctly, director James Robert Carson appears to interpret the plot as a thinly-veiled tribute to Handel's patron George I, the monarch at the time the opera was written, and George II, who had ascended the throne by the time it was first performed. So the English are swagged up 18th century style, and the Cypriots become the beastly Turks, whom the elder George battled in his youth. So far so good. The simplicity of a plain stepped set and a few buckets of sand strewn beachily around imply a character-focussed drama is on its way - also good.
But then he goes and embellishes it with projections, including a particularly tittersome one of a bounding lion (Lionheart, geddit?). Trippy lighting adds nothing except more unnecessary variety. Though the cast sang well, their geometric blocking, uncertain demeanour and often-mistimed reactions suggested directorial time might better have been devoted to basic stagecraft. An added plot twist in which Costanza fainted at the wedding finale was simply bizarre.
As Pulcheria, the King of Cyprus's daughter who fancies Riccardo herself, Emilie Renard was the only member of the cast to fully surmount the production's issues and communicate with the audience. Her vivacity and accuracy suggest a future career path of spunky bel canto heroines. Eleanor Dennis as the cool and elegant heroine Costanza offered an intriguingly smoky soprano with a plaintive edge, but a little more reserve than her character's desperate situation required.
The adversaries Riccardo (Rupert Enticknap) and Cypriot king Isacio (Edward Grint) are both hampered by a plot that requires them to change without real explanation from sophisticated diplomats to bloodthirsty tyrants. Both managed much better with the first part than the second (Riccardo's sudden outburst of jingoistic troop-rousing pressed the audience's laughter button). But they sang strongly throughout, as did the sole pants lady, Fiona Mackenzie as Riccardo's ally Oronte.
The real strengths of this opera though lie in Handel's inventive orchestrations, which peak with recorder birdsong accompanying a song about, yes, birdsong. Laurence Cummings introduced tremendous textural variety and kept up a cracking pace. People sometimes complain Handel is boring, and sometimes they're right - but it's not a charge you could level at Riccardo Primo. Absurd, yes, boring, never.
The venue was the Royal College of Music's own bijou opera house, the Britten Theatre: