Richard the Lionheart has seen his philandering and tyrant ways reincarnated time and time again in various plays and novels, but the most bizarre is without a doubt in Riccardo Primo re d’Inghilterra by Handel.
This rare 1727 opera highlight was easily the best part of the 35th London Handel festival performed as collaboration with the International Opera School from the Royal College of Music. The last time it was performed previously was in 1964 at Sadler’s Wells.
The play opens with the kind on his way to the Third Crusade until he ends up stuck in the city of Cyprus where he pretends to be an ambassador for himself so that he can see his betrothed wife, Costanza that he has never met.
The idea is that he plays his own adviser so that he can get a sneak preview and see what he likes from an outsider’s point view, and even though there is a bit too much comical nationalism in it and the drama is pretty drab, overall the play still has some redeeming merits. When the RCM tackled it the play even became a musical treat adding one more nice touch to a crazy opera.
This may not be the best play that Handel ever wrote, but it is able to hold the attention of a captive audience and has enough twists in it to keep audience’s guessing all the way up until Constanza drops into the crowd without her royal husband even noticing. Most likely this is intended to show just how self-absorbed monarchs can get.
The musical standards are quite rigorous and obviously well rehearsed as the LHF orchestra does a great job executing the writing and music with a series of recorders that are almost bird like and plenty of royal sounding trumpets, strings, drums, and horns. The balance between vigour and phrasing is also great allowing for the pace of the opera to move at a steady pace that keeps the audience from getting bored and losing interest.