Richard III, De Vlaamse Opera, Antwerp, Belgium

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time is to be believed, Richard of York was not such a bad feller.

If Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time is to be believed, Richard of York was not such a bad feller. Shakespeare, of course, was having none of it. Gloucester, uncle to Henry VII's queen, was a bad egg who sent Tyrrell to bump off her little brothers, plus a king, prince, dukes, his own brother, his wife (virtually) and - but for some timely strawberries - a bishop to boot.

Merged crowns or not, Henry Tudor, who triumphs at the close of Robert Carsen's stage premiere for Flanders Opera of Giorgio Battistelli's fabulous new opera Richard III, was a Lancastrian offshoot; and you weren't allowed to forget it.

Criminal libel? Maybe. But Battistelli's Richard III, sung in English and, unlike Adès's Tempest, embracing Shakespeare's text, remains huge fun. What an opera this virtual Greek tragedy is; doubly so, thanks to librettist Ian Burton's brilliantly incisive offcut of the original. This bracing new opera is made for ENO: a staging there would grace Sean Doran's British-focused seasons perfectly.

Why so explosive? Battistelli has got it rivetingly right. Instead of larding this blissful domestic soap with mellifluous aria, he's gone for fast-moving recitativo accompagnato - and very imaginatively accompanied too. Arias hit unexpected spots: a love aria for Tyrrell? We don't see the princes' deaths. Instead, we see the pair (the deliciously spunky Royal College of Music-trained countertenor Jonathan De Ceuster, plus cheerful treble Michael Lamiroy) cavorting with uncle, and then their corpses limp in a wheelbarrow. Cue MacDuff. If that Carsen image doesn't wrench the heart, nothing will.

Double-casting the beautifully lyrical American tenor Mark Tevis as Clarence-the-murdered and Tyrrell-the-murderer was a masterstroke. It not only gives us a desirable double bite, but set up a quiz evoking Tey's conundrum: who's good, who's really bad? Fellow American Scott Hendricks made Richard, rightly, a bundle of fun. Cynically courting Lisa Houben's lovely-sounding Lady Anne, he makes Battistelli's vocal lines flow like melted butter. Delightful; deadly.

There are some jolly good performances from Brits: Simon Kirkbride, strong and sympathetic as Brackenbury; Philip Sheffield as a prematurely aged Edward IV; Russell Smythe, as Hastings; and the glorious Anne Mason, upstaging Lynne Dawson's Queen, as the Duchess of York.

Richard III opens graphically (and inaccurately) with Henry VI's war-torn body onstage, with Edward IV savouring the crown; it should have ended with exactly the same image, but Richard the corpse. It's the only change I'd make to Carsen's raked staging, with superbly moved chorus, brilliantly lit by Carsen and Peter van Praet. Luca Pfaff conducted to perfection.

De Vlaamse Opera, Gent (00 32 70 220 202; www.vlaamseopera.be) to 23 February

Comments