As a critic invited to the featured opera in the annual London Handel Festival hot from two excellent productions at the Wigmore Hall and Netherlands Opera I would expect to have to make allowances for young, inexperienced singers. At the Britten Theatre the LHF, in conjunction with the Royal College of Music, provide a showcase for the best of the young talent currently studying at the International Opera School.  No less than eleven music coaches are credited in the programme for training these young singers in the refined art of singing opera seria. All those involved in coaching have every right to be proud: all the members of this young cast acquitted themselves admirably.

I chose the alternate cast of Riccardo Primo principally because I wanted to hear how the counter-tenor Jake Arditti has developed since last year. I first heard him sing a song cycle with string quartet by Hilda Paredes at the Wigmore Hall last February and then his role in last year’s LHF production of Rodelinda. Counter-tenors today fall roughly into two categories: those who make the perfect cathedral lay clerk and sound their best with lute accompaniment and those with the extra dimension to enable them to make the transition to the operatic stage.  Handel is of course the perfect medium to accommodate both kinds of counter-tenor, since the softer ecclesiastical voice is not at risk of drowning by the sonorities of a modern orchestra. The Retrospect Ensemble production of Amadigi offered both types in the form of Christopher Ainslie and Robin Blaze and here in Riccardo Primo we had James Hall as Oronte, Prince of Syria in one corner and Jake Arditti as Riccardo in the other.

Riccardo Primo is another Handel opera which has felt the smarts of Winton Dean’s lash, but having heard what glorious music it contains, I am amazed it has only received two performances since its revival in 1964.  This is music which deserves to be heard and, like Deidamia, it is worthy of a fine production. Unlike Deidamia which suffered a backlash from a probable hate campaign against Handel, Riccardo Primo was successful at the time of its first production.  Handel had to postpone its premiere in May 1727 because of the death of George I and chose to revise its tone prior to the production in November of that year. The portrayal of George II’s illustrious antecedent was modified so that in the final version he is both magnanimous and compassionate – presumably in honour of the new King.  The plot line is that Richard the Lionheart’s betrothed, Princess Costanza of Navarre, is shipwrecked on the island of Cyprus while on her way to her wedding. First Oronte, who is in Cyprus with a view to marrying the King of Cyprus’ daughter, makes overtures to Costanza, upsetting Pulcheria, his betrothed.  Then Isace, the King himself, also becomes infatuated with Costanza and endeavours to trick Riccardo by sending Pulcheria to him in Costanza’s place.  In the end Oronte and Riccardo join forces, Isace is overthrown, Riccardo marries his faithful fiancée and dubs Pulcheria ruler of Cyprus in place of her father.

The part of Riccardo was created for the finest alto castrato of his day, Senesino, to whom Jake Arditti proved a worthy successor.  This young man sings and moves with gravitas, clearly relishing his role as one of England’s warrior kings. Not only did he prove himself a fine Handel singer, but the marvellous Sensino arias such as “Agitato da fiere tempeste” and “All’orror delle procelle” were sung with great musicality and lyricism.  Jake’s undergraduate teacher was Andrew Watts who has trained his protégé well in the art of truly operatic singing.

By contrast, James Hall as Oronte sings very accurately and sweetly but doesn’t have that extra operatic fervour or the scope to act with the voice.  I have to say he wasn’t helped by the second worst wig in the production and an odd costume which made him look like a member of Status Quo in a dress. I imagine Mr Hall, who granted is not yet as experienced as Mr Arditti, is a very fine singer in consorts and Bach cantatas.

Katherine Crompton is another very young singer in training at the Royal College.  She took on the significant role of Costanza, the extraordinary woman who remains faithful to the lover she has only seen in a portrait, despite all the important men in Cyprus literally throwing themselves at her. Ms Crompton has what I think is going to be quite a big voice, but her vibrato is well under control, enabling her to put more light and shade into her mournful, even plaintive arias about suffering such as “Morte, vieni!” and “Caro, vieni a me.” The aria accompanied by sopranino recorder (an almost compulsory element in opera seria,) “Il volo cosi fido” was a delight and the duet with Riccardo, “T’amo si” extremely moving. If I have any reservations about Ms Compton’s performance, it is merely that she tries to be more expressive than her technique will yet allow, resulting just occasionally in her sounding slightly under pitch on a floated note.  However in my view this soprano has huge potential. Once again she was hampered by design and direction. She was dressed as Barbara Windsor playing a Fairy Godmother, showing far too much decolletage for a demure and faithful princess, even in Georgian times.

Hannah Sandison as Pulcheria by contrast wore a tunic beloved of designers who are not quite sure where Asia Minor is or was. Pulcheria is the so-called ‘rival queen,’ although technically both characters are princesses until crowned at the end.  This is in part a reference to the rivalry between Handel’s two fiery Italian soprani, Cuzzoni and Bordoni who, even if they never actually raised a hand to each other in public, attracted rival factions of supporters who did indeed on occasion brawl in the theatre.  Ms Sandison’s voice is a very different instrument from Ms Compton’s, providing a welcome contrast.  She has what I can only think of describing as an old-fashioned voice, perhaps harking back to Isobel Baillie, with an attractive, darker tone. I felt Pulcheria’s da capo arias are actually more technically taxing than those of Costanza; certainly Ms Sandison made them sound quite difficult to sing, letting the audience know she too was flying close to the wind. It is an interesting point that the alternate cast has a mezzo singing this role, but I think Ms Sandison is potentially a dramatic soprano, although the voice is not very big yet. Her acting is good and she projected just the right personality for Pulcheria who suffers a lot more than Costanza, but makes much less fuss about it.

Berardo, Costanza’s cousin and confidant was played by Timothy Nelson and Isacio, the evil tyrant, by Edward Grint.  If I could have had a composite of the two singers, we’d have another very valuable British baritone on our hands.  Mr Nelson didn’t shine in his recitatives, but produced a lovely even tone and fluid Handel singing in his one aria.  By contrast Mr Grint acted beautifully in all his recitatives, really using the words, then was a little patchy in his fierce and bellicose arias such as “Nel mondo, nel abisso.” Poor Mr Nelson had the worst wig in the production: by the third act my partner and I realised simultaneously that he reminded us of James May (of Top Gear fame.)

The performance of the London Handel Orchestra directed by Laurence Cummings as usual was first class. Of special note were the contributions from the two baroque oboists who were able to double to a professional standard on recorders.  All the playing was crisper than that of Concerto Köln and, despite playing authentic instruments, the ensemble is able to produce resonant and warm sonorities which do justice to Handel’s colourful score.

I said at the opening that this was a showcase for fledgling professional singers, giving them the opportunity to work with an established stage director and designer.  I can just about forgive Adam Wiltshire for the designs as I imagine most of the costumes, wigs and even sets were borrowed.  (We thought we recognised wigs from unrelated productions by ETO, who were thanked in the programme.) However it never really works to attempt symbolic minimalism with plastic flowers, empty birdcages, scatter cushions and amateur-looking props which tended to clutter the stage.  Rinaldo’s (2011) simple door and window in a wall was much more effective. Worst of all were the video clips which looked as if they were cobbled together the night before. The footage of a cantering lion even raised a laugh, as did the really poor surtitles which left out large chunks of Costanza’s recitative, included typos and at times sounded as if we were at the Levison enquiry, e.g. “The English love to topple the arrogant.”

Unlike David Alden’s take on Deidamia, James Robert Carson chose not to play this Handel opera for laughs.  Perhaps it would have been better if he had.  I thought it was unforgiveable that a fine young singer such as Jake Arditti had to contend with an audience  tittering at the translation when he was commanding the stage in an aria fit to rival Henry V’s at Agincourt.  Such was the quality of singing of this young cast and the excellent musical direction that this production of Riccardo Primo could stand the test of time with re-written (or no) surtitles, new or no wigs, simpler costumes and no more random excerpts from Born Free.

3 stars

Miranda Jackson