Riccardo Primo, Re d’Inghilterra (or in English, Richard I), is Handel’s only opera based on the story of an English monarch, and it was premiered in the coronation year of King George II in 1727 (although in fact it was composed the year before but postponed). Therefore, it made sense that this London Handel Festival production at the Britten Theatre should be set loosely in the Georgian period, rather than in the twelfth century of Richard the Lionheart himself.

Rupert Enticknap (Riccardo Primo)
Rupert Enticknap (Riccardo Primo)

Handel wrote this opera for his stellar cast of the 1727 season, the castrato Senesino and the two 'rivalling' sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, and made full use of their vocal strengths. Although the work lacks the musical consistency and dramatic impact of Handel’s more popular operas such as Giulio Cesare or Ariodante, the individual arias are well crafted with varied instrumentation (such as arias with two horns or sopranino recorder) and deserves to be performed more often.

As usual with Handel’s operas, very little of the plot is based on historical facts, except for the characters. In the case of this opera, it is true that Richard I (Riccardo) was involved in a storm when travelling to Cyprus in 1191 on his way to meet and marry the Princess of Navarre (Costanza in the opera), but the rest is largely fictitious, and ridiculous even by Handelian standards.

Riccardo and Costanza, in separate fleets, are shipwrecked in a tempest (a popular baroque opera device) and washed up on the coast of Cyprus. Constanza and her tutor Berardo are held by the villainous king Isacio, who immediately falls in love with her, and refuses to release her when Riccardo arrives to rescue her. The rest of this light-weight plot centres on the attempts to rescue Costanza with the help of Pulcheria, the lively daughter of Isacio, and her fiancé Oronte, prince of Syria. In the end, a battle is fought between Riccardo and Isacio, and Riccardo triumphs, but he magnanimously pardons Isacio (this part of the plot is a nod to the new monarch George II), and gives Cyprus to Pulcheria and Oronte.

The first-night cast featured a talented trio of singers from the Opera School at the Royal College of Music worthy of Senesino, Cuzzoni and Bordoni. In particular, soprano Eleanor Dennis (Costanza) and mezzo-soprano Emilie Renard (Pulcheria) brought out the contrasting characteristics of Handel's two divas which are written into the music – lyrical and melancholic arias for Costanza and lively and coquettish arias for Pulcheria. In particular, Emilie Renard (winner of the Audience Prize in Handel Singing Competition 2011) made the character of Pulcheria very much her own and sang both recitatives and arias stylishly and with ease. Eleanor Dennis, whom I heard in last year’s LHF Rodelinda, is vocally mature with secure top notes, although her portrayal of Costanza as a tragedienne seemed rather one-dimensional. As Riccardo, Rupert Enticknap sang with technical assurance: his is not a large voice but it is expressive and his duet with Costanza in the second act was touching. Fiona Mackenzie (Oronte) and Edward Grint (Isacio) seemed not totally at ease with Handel’s recitatives, but sang their arias with commitment and character.

The second-night cast was vocally not as well balanced as the first cast, but they brought their own character to the roles and displayed a different dramatic dynamic which was equally valid. Jake Arditti played Riccardo with authority and poise: in particular, his aria at the end of the first act was brilliantly executed. The two sopranos had some technical issues, but the bright-voiced Katherine Crompton brought more warmth to Costanza, and Hannah Sandison was also a gentler, if less lively Pulcheria. Laurence Cummings directed the young singers with boundless energy and enthusiasm from the pit, and the London Handel Orchestra played as ever with spirit and expressive colour.

Director James Robert Carson treated the opera more or less straightforwardly (except for a small twist at the end), possibly partly out of financial necessity, but largely it worked. A huge staircase in the style of a Greek temple dominated the stage, giving depth and dimension to the small space. Simple props (cushions, lanterns, drapery, jasmine tree, flags, crosses etc.) were augmented by visual effects projected onto the screen at the front and back during the scene changes. The use of video footage of a lion running across the Savanna to accompany the battle scene – a jokey reference to the “Lionheart” – caused some laughs, but otherwise the visuals were unobtrusive and most importantly, it didn’t distract from the stylish and earnest performance by all.

The first cast performed on Monday 26 and Wednesday 28 March; the second on Tuesday 27 and Thursday 29.