Sunday, June 21, 2015

Opera Review: Singing as Olympic sport in Opera Theatre's "Richard the Lionheart"

Tim Meady
Photo: Ken Howard
Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis
What: Handel's Richard the Lionheart
Where: The Loretto-Hilton Center, St. Louis
When: through June 26, 2015

If you're in the mood for an evening of singing so incredible that you'll wonder why it isn't an Olympic sport, then allow me to recommend Opera Theatre's production of the American premiere of Handel's "Richard the Lionheart" (original Italian title: "Riccardo primo, re d’Inghilterra"), final performances of which are this Wednesday at Friday at 8 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.

Written in London (where Handel's Italian-language historical operas were all the rage) for the Royal Academy of Music's 1726/27 season, "Richard" was intended, in part, as a celebratory work for the coronation of England's King George II. As a result it turns England's feckless Crusader king into an absurdly noble romantic figure and suffers (in my view) from an overdose of English Jingoism in its final act.

Yes, that’s right: an opera written in Italian by a German-born composer celebrates the English virtues of George II, a German-born King. It’s enough to make your head spin.

One other thing that might make your head spin if you're not an opera and/or classical music fan is that fact that the male leads in "Richard the Lionheart" (Richard and the Syrian prince Oronte) are sung not by tenors but by countertenors—men who sing in the mezzo-soprano or alto range. That's because in Handel's day it was fashionable for these parts to be sung by castrati—male singers who were castrated before puberty and whose voices, therefore, never dropped in pitch.

Handel had a couple of the great castrati of his era to work with in this opera, so Richard and Oronte's arias are flashy and absurdly difficult, filled with elaborate, rapid passages and florid ornamentation. Opera Theatre has, happily, two fine singers in the roles: Tim Mead as Richard and Tai Oney as Oronte. Mr. Mead is clearly the stronger of the two, with a powerful, wide-ranging voice and a convincingly forceful stage presence, although Mr. Oney is no slouch. Their respective calls to arms in the third act are a highlight.

The story of the opera is based on a real incident in 1191 in which Richard's fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre, was shipwrecked off the coast of Cyprus and held hostage by the island's ruler, Isaac Komnenos. Richard conquered the island and got her back. The opera changes Berengaria's name to Costanza and adds a subplot in which Isaac (Isacio in the opera) tries to pass off his daughter Pulcheria as Richard's intended, much to the distress of Pulcheria's lover Oronte.

L-R: Susannah Biller and Devon Guthrie
Photo: Ken Howard
It's silly stuff and stage director Lee Blakeley has tacked on an unconvincingly dark ending that flatly contradicts the text and the music, but nothing can detract from the fine singing and acting of this cast.

I've already praised Mr. Mead and Mr. Oney. Soprano Susannah Biller has a crystal-clear coloratura that navigates the music with ease, while soprano Devon Guthrie has an equally impressive but darker tone that works well for Pulcheria. Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel radiates menace as Isacio and bass Adam Lau is warmly sympathetic as Costanza's cousin Berardo. Both have formidable voices that project well.

Grant Llewellyn conducts the appropriately small orchestra with great flair and sensitivity. Their playing is perfection, with shout-outs to Laura Osterlund on sopranino recorder for her wonderful work on Costanza's "swallow" aria, and to Simon Martyn-Ellis, whose archlute adds a nice bite to the continuo part played by Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek on harpsichord and Melissa Brooks on 'cello.

For the full Opera Theatre experience, come early and have a picnic or a drink on a table on the lawn. For details on "Richard the Lionheart" and the other three operas this season, visit the company web site.

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