Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A noble and thrilling Richard the Lionheart at Opera Theater of St Louis

In Opera Theatre of St Louis' new production of George Frideric Handel's Richard the Lionheart, there is such gracious depth, subtle humour and connectivity with its audience that it's hard to imagine why the opera - or as Handel composed it, Riccardo Primo - is only now receiving its American premiere.

First performed in 1727 at the King's Theatre London, the story certainly isn't a convoluted carry-on with a cast of characters difficult to find meat on like some Baroque works.  Paolo Antonio Rolli's original Italian libretto has been catapulted into clarity with an exciting new English edition by director Lee Blakeley and Damian Thantrey, then lifted into a staging under Blakeley's direction that blends visual evocativeness with absorbingly detailed character portrayal. 

Tim Mead as Richard the Lionheart
Though title and privilege rest in the underlay, the story is told in a remarkable arms-reach warmth and relevance. It also didn't go unnoticed that the gently raked amphitheatre-styled Webster University Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts, in its ordinary but functional modernity, showcases the work with borderless transparency and immediacy. Of course, its the work of the creatives and artists that ultimately dictate the work's success but it cannot be ignored how architecture of space can elevate the experience. Keeping this work alive means keeping the proscenium away for the ultimate result. 

Shipwrecked after a storm off the coast of Cyprus, a sight-unseen bride and groom's proposed royal marriage is left marooned. Subsequent events plunge into dangerously dark territory and a bloody battle ensues. However, unflinching courage steers the couple to an eventual union in a joyous celebration of determination, virtue and love.

The royal groom is Richard the Lionheart, having embarked on his Third Crusade in 1191, resolutely performed by Tim Mead, whose vigorous, often bright countertenor never seemed at odds with masculine bravery and spirit as he espousesd English attributes with a little irony under his belt.

Susannah Biller as Costanza and Devon Guthrie as Pulcheria
Mead paired seamlessly with Susannah Biller as his young bride Costanza, a Spanish princess. Biller's bright soprano exhibited both fullness and delicacy, crowned by sweet, zinging top notes which reached their most delightful in Costanza's final aria as she played a charade of bird-catching to the faultlessly fluttering sopranino recorder of Laura Osterlund.

Isacio, King of Cyprus and Costanza's captor after her shipwreck, was given pirate brutishness by bass-baritone Brandon Cedel. Master of mansplaining and lecherous to boot, no sympathy for this king was ever going to be garnered. Cedel's performance was strident enough throughout to mask a little overworked vocal boisterousness and bumpy phrasing over what was otherwise a confident, resonant sound on opening night.

Susannah Biller as Costanza and Brandon Cedel as Isacio

Isacio's daughter Pulcheria, trapped by her father's irrational lust for women and power, and initially threatened by Costanza's beauty, was robustly enacted by soprano Devon Guthrie. Voluptuously rich in tone and exhibiting a secure, confident coloratura, Guthrie showed Pulcheria's enlightened depth of character with complete conviction.

Countertenor Tai Oney as Pulcheria's fiancé Oronte, swung from vulnerability to strength while caught in her pot of jealousy as he cast harmless eyes on Costanza, yet ready to commit treason to prove his love for her. Warm and mellow-toned, Oney's easy, languorous delivery was as captivating as my first encounter with him as Adolfo in Brisbane Baroque's recent Faramondo. Orontes' Act III sword dance, entertaining as it is however, did nothing to add to his combative prowess despite Oney's skilful hand.

In the smaller singing role of Costanza's servant Berardo -  nonetheless given loads of stage time and drive to the plot - Adam Lau opened the night with impressive bass might and formidable stage presence. Berardo too wasn't left out of the chemistry of attraction for Costanza and Lau adorably complied.

Handel's synonymously eloquent and untiring music abounds in the score. Over the opera's three acts there was never a sterile moment as recitative and aria alternate and each of the first two acts end with good reason to return for more. Conductor Grant Llewellyn drove opening night with a slick, buoyantly noble rendering, never overpowering his vocalists. Llewellyn elicited fine-edged playing from his 30-plus musicians for the opera's three-hour duration with only the violins at times not meeting my expectations of padded warmth of tone.

Tai Oney as Oronte and Tim Mead as Richard the Lionheart

In Act II's finale, a love duet punctuates the score with devastating beauty as Richard and Costanza transformed their first meeting from polite introductions to tender caresses. The scene was infused with all the very best of Blakeley's direction and the cleverly placed late 18th century setting enhanced by Christopher Akerlind's subtly shifting lighting design.

The shipwreck features strongly throughout Jean-Marcu Puissant's inspired set design - a broken up vessel used in various ways to bring a strong sense of place in compelling yet simple ways, a comfortable metaphor for the tumultuous nature of events. The Cross of St George unfurls with potent effect and Puissant's period costumes of muted tones - both bedraggled and refined - soundly fit the set, knitting together a series of stormy, undulating visual tableaux as watertight as could be.

Handel's Richard the Lionheart's modern day discovery on the stage revealed a thrilling work in much the same way as the discovery of a lost shipwreck reveals its mysteries. Opera Theatre of St Louis need not pack this production away for too long as its goods could be shipped to any number of exotic destinations.

Production photos by Ken Howard

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