February 25, 2014 6:06 pm

Riccardo Primo, Badisches Staatstheater, Karlsruhe, Germany – review

Franco Fagioli is superb in the title role in this period staging of Handel’s opera
From left, Claire Lefilliâtre, Emily Hindrichs and Franco Fagioli in 'Riccardo Primo'©Falk von Traubenberg

From left, Claire Lefilliâtre, Emily Hindrichs and Franco Fagioli in 'Riccardo Primo'

Few people would debate the importance of historically informed performance these days. The achievements of a lunatic fringe back in the 1960s and 70s have long since become mainstream. So what about historically informed staging?

For its disinterment of Handel’s 1727 Riccardo Primo, Karlsruhe’s International Handel Festival has gone beyond period instruments and into the shadowy world of period staging. With only candles for illumination, the shadows are real.


IN Music

This is Benjamin Lazar’s German debut. The French director has been enthralled by baroque gesture since he was a 10-year-old, and his work is an obsessive reconstruction of what an 18th-century staging might have looked like.

Perhaps he is right. Perhaps Handel’s stage sets (here Adeline Caron) did look like something out of a Playmobil castle kit; perhaps baroque gesture really did look like what you might get today if you taught a gay traffic cop Balinese temple dance.

To be fair, Alain Blanchot’s sumptuous costumes look ravishing. All that gold helps to reflect the ingenious things that Christophe Naillet achieves with candlelight, and the inside of Isacio’s palace is truly beautiful.

Handel wrote the opera for three of the greatest singers of his time, and a set that requires singers to advance to the footlights if they are to be seen at all gives every chance for vocal display. Here, Karlsruhe has done several things very right.

Franco Fagioli is one of them. In the title role, the star countertenor delivers an account that might have given Handel’s Senesino (for whom the part was written) a run for his money. A huge vocal range, seemingly effortless coloratura, superlative musicality and a visceral thrill in the singing itself – this production is worth seeing for Fagioli alone.

As his faithful Constanza, ensemble member Emily Hindrichs makes a fine match, with just the translucent, otherworldly sweetness the part demands. Lisandro Abadie makes a formidable bass villain as Isacio, Andrew Finden adds nobility to the small role of Berardo, while Nicholas Tamanga and Claire Lefilliâtre warm into their parts as the evening progresses.

Michael Hofstetter keeps the pace taut, with a spring in his beat and a keen ear for the singers. The players of the Deutsche Händel-Solisten respond with brisk, clean playing; yet all of them know to stretch and sigh in the work’s episodes of lament.

This is an opera that looks and sounds enchanting. But the fundamental question of music theatre today – why are we seeing this piece here and now? – is not answered. It is a museum experience, fascinating, enchanting, and utterly removed from the cares and politics of daily life. That was not the case in Handel’s time. Audiences could read every gesture as clearly as a newspaper headline, and understood each topical reference. An attempt at “authenticity” will always run the risk of painting the work’s original intention – and with that its power to communicate – out of the picture.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

Life & Arts on Twitter

More FT Twitter accounts