Even by Handel’s standards Riccardo Primo has a ludicrous story. Set in the 12th century during the Crusades, the opera follows the exploits of Richard I after he is shipwrecked in the eastern Mediterranean. Preparing for battle with the double-dealing ruler of Cyprus, the noble King Richard rouses his troops with the patriotic cry, “The English people are famous for toppling the arrogant!”
In the light of current events it raised a laugh at the Britten Theatre, venue for the fully staged opera that is the annual highlight of the London Handel Festival. This year the 35th festival is offering a real operatic rarity, though the reasons why Riccardo Primo disappeared after its premiere in 1727 are not hard to find.
Is it a comedy or a swashbuckling drama? Even Handel must have had doubts by the time he reached the scene where King Richard is faced by the fiancé he has never seen, who happened to be shipwrecked with him, and an imposter disguised as her double. And only a Baroque opera could carry on to a denouement in which the noble King – “born by the Thames,” he assures us, “the homeland of liberty, virtue and bravery” – routs the enemy with an army of two.
It seems the director, James Robert Carson, was also unsure whether he was dealing with a comedy or not. He starts out presenting the opera as a semi-serious Baroque pastiche, but gradually its grip loosens. When King Richard (the “Lionheart”) goes into battle accompanied by film of a lion charging across the savannah, the imagery produced hoots of laughter.
Musical standards are upheld by the lively playing of the London Handel Orchestra under Laurence Cummings and a couple of singers in this second cast rose above the average – notably Katherine Crompton and Hannah Sandison as the two sopranos vying to be England’s queen. A lot of the music here is worth rediscovering, but overall Riccardo Primo does not equal the successes of the festival’s past few years.