Riccardo Primo, London Handel Orchestra/Cummings, Britten Theatre


Handel's Riccardo Primo, aka Richard the Lionheart, may have been a hit on its first appearance in 1727 – not only because of press reports about backstage hair-pulling between the principals - but after eleven performances it was consigned to the vaults, where it remained until its first revival in 1964.

Since then it’s had just two further airings, one of which was in Cyprus where the action is set. Endlessly revised, then stuck in a drawer, it came in handy when George I died; there is evidence that Handel reworked it to glorify the new king, but it was also designed to glorify the talents of its celebrated stars Bordoni Faustina, Francesca Cuzzoni, and the great castrato Francesco Senesino.

The overture – starring oboes, bassoons, and sundry flutes – sets a cracking pace which the London Handel Orchestra under the direction of Laurence Cummings ably replicates. And after its climax with a timpani-generated tempest on Limassol beach, Cuzzoni’s shipwrecked character Princess Costanza gets an aria of heartbreak from which soprano Catherine Crompton, this production’s Costanza, extracts great beauty. Crompton may still be in the first year of the Royal College of Music’s opera course, but here she reveals herself as a born Handelian, with delicately sustained high notes and an instinctive sense of pace and structure. Meanwhile Hannah Sandison makes a lovely job of the balancing mezzo role of Princess Pulcheria, and countertenor Jake Arditti sings and moves with regal dignity in the title role; countertenor James Hall’s Oronte has nobility of sound, but a disturbing limpness of demeanour.

With four fine young singers, what’s not to like? Quite a lot, unfortunately, for which director James Robert Carson and designer Adam Wiltshire must be squarely to blame. I have seldom seen such stuffed-dummy acting on a professional stage, or such risibly cack-handed visual effects: shoestring opera doesn’t have to be like this. Some of the unintended laughs are down to the libretto – Richard’s blithe imposition of regime-change in the Middle East is quintessentially Blairite – but so many of the laughs are directorial own-goals that one admires the performers’ grit. Yet all four principals know how to float a line, and how to present a long da capo aria, in its variegated moods. As a result, Handel casts his usual spell.