Riccardo Primo, Britten Theatre, London
Life Is a Dream, Argyle Works, Birmingham
Timberbrit, Bussey Building, London

Awkward direction hobbles this Handel collector's item, but it takes more than that to keep a good performer down

Four weeks after George II was crowned to the strains of Zadok the Priest, Handel delivered another compliment to his new king. Loosely based on Richard the Lionheart's swashbuckling rescue of Berengaria of Navarre from the evil clutches of Isaakios Komnenos, Riccardo Primo, Re d'Inghilterra tells us much about the 18th-century ideal of a modern monarchy. In real life, Richard and Berengaria's union was unhappy. But Riccardo Primo is not about Richard. It is about King George and his consort, Caroline. Born in the land of "freedom, virtue and gallantry", Richard/Riccardo is as merciful in victory as he is fearless in battle. Written for Francesca Cuzzoni, Berengaria/Costanza is afforded the most luxurious arias, though none advances more complex qualities than constancy and discretion.

The temptation to do a Wills and Kate production of Riccardo Primo for the London Handel Festival must have been immense. Instead, director James Robert Carson offers a straight period-costume staging of Acts I and II and a muddled critique of colonialism in Act III. A handsome, edgy presence in the second of two casts, Jake Arditti as Riccardo is belatedly revealed as a psychopath, vengeful in his treatment of the captive Isacio (Edward Grint). Having swooned in misery at the prospect of never seeing her beloved, Katherine Crompton's Costanza suddenly swoons in terror of spending the rest of her life with him.

Stranded in a production that seems not to know how seriously to take itself, Carson's singers are handicapped by candelabra-style blocking in which the person singing is symmetrically framed by two or four persons who are not. A wide flight of steps dominates Adam Wiltshire's set, sometimes veiled in silks and lit with Moorish lanterns, sometimes canopied with jasmine, sometimes studded with flags. Video projections include shooting stars, a reproduction of an 1841 painting of Richard, and, at the crux of the siege of Limassol, documentary footage of a lion in chase.

It is a cruel fact that while experienced singers can conceal incompetent direction, young singers expose their own and their director's weaknesses. James Hall's Oronte sang with a clear, bright tone, but wore an expression of beatific bafflement. Timothy Nelson's Berardo disappeared behind his wig, while Grint reached a startling fast-boil. Hannah Sandison was the most expressive singer, projecting Pulcheria's hauteur, warmth and sadness stylishly. As ever, the orchestral performance under Laurence Cummings was scintillating, propelled by a peppery bassoon, archlute, cello, bass and two harpsichords. It is this vivacity, and the rarity of the repertoire, that accounts for the loyalty of the festival's audience. But they deserve better on stage than human candelabras and a hungry lion.

Reminiscent of John Adams in its glancing figures for strings and tuned percussion, Jonathan Dove's immersive opera Life is a Dream is so much a bespoke commission for Birmingham Opera Company that it is hard to imagine it performed in any other setting than a former factory in Digbeth. Graham Vick's huge company of dancers, actors and singers have used this space before (for Otello) and will return in August for Stockhausen's Mittwoch aus Licht. It feels like home– if home is a warehouse in which you can see your breath in the air and have to swerve to avoid surgeons with bloody wrists, frantic brides, enraged mourners, thumb-sucking sleepers and a drunken Father Christmas.

Like Riccardo Primo, Dove's opera is about mercy. It is also about the terrible abuse of a child, Prince Segismund (Eric Greene), locked away since birth. Placed on the throne for one day by his father, King Basil (Paul Nilon), he rapes, stabs, defenestrates, is drugged and returned to his cell, and told that it was only a dream. Released by his people, he rampages again but relents, sparing Basil, rewarding the avenging Rosaura (Wendy Dawn Thompson) with a love match (Joseph Guyton), marrying Estella (Donna Bateman) and forgiving his jailer (Keel Watson).

In Vick's productions you can run with the pack, pressing in on the action, or stand back. Designed around a ring of padded cells by Samal Blak, with orchestra and conductor William Lacey at its centre, the production raced up gantries of scaffolding and whirled about on wheeled bunk-beds. It was thrilling and disturbing, wholly committed, a choral surround-sound.

Carmen Elektra, the company behind the UK premiere of Jacob Cooper's Timberbrit, probably aspire to the same rough thrill as Birmingham. Spread across two floors of the Bussey Building in Peckham, south-east London, this was an evening of loud DJ sets, barely audible chamber music (by Michel van der Aa and Kate Whitely), and a grinding electro-pop liebestod for "Britney Spears" (Lucy Cronin). Whether Timberbrit was truer to its living subject than Anna Nicole was to the late Anna Nicole Smith, I couldn't say. But the soul-fraying horror of sexual commodification was vividly felt in Cronin's mascara-streaked performance.

Classical Choice

Valery Gergiev conducts the chorus, soloists and orchestra of the Mariinsky Opera in Mahler's Symphony of a Thousand at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, at 4pm today. Laurence Cummings and the London Handel Orchestra put Bach's St Matthew Passion in the context of a Vespers service at St George's, Hanover Square, London (Fri).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum