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Reflection: Opera Theatre gives 'Richard the Lionheart' the royal treatment

Susannah Biller as Costanza and Tim Mead as Richard the Lionheart in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s 2015 production of Richard the Lionheart.
Ken Howard

Anyone who’s been a regular visitor to Opera Theatre of St. Louis in its 40-season history knows there’ve been no shortages of memorable productions on its stage. George Frideric Handel’s “Richard the Lionheart,” given its American premiere here his year, will be the crowning achievement of this special-anniversary season, and will lodge itself as a touchstone in history and memory, as are Jonathan Miller’s “Cosi fan tutte” (1982) and Colin Graham’s “Beatrice and Benedict” (1983) and other operas one might choose.

The enchantment commences with the conductor Grant Llewellyn’s downbeat -- a silvery initiation that shivers you with pleasure and offers promises of more to follow. And follow more does, from those first notes and on through the achingly beautiful duet of the abused prima donna Costanza and the conflicted Pulcheria, so exquisite you wish it would never end. The music moves as a stream, agitated in rapids here, calm, sparkling in a pool there, then moving through the dark place of narcissism and sexual violence so murky that the regal and festive conclusion are entirely appropriate.

Any stage director worthy of the title aspires to cohesiveness, even when chaos is demanded by the score. Cohesion is a quality in which a show develops organically and holds together seamlessly and makes at least some sense. Lee Blakeley achieves such an association in this opera. All the glorious elements of opera at its most compelling provides us – music, décor, words, costumes, lighting, makeup and so on and on – all this is joined in a confederation of art, braided together, loose here so it breathes, tight and fast there where tensions arise and must be contained and resolved.

The set, as adaptable and expressive as it is raw and formidable, is washed in a light of qualities that range from tropical brightness to forbidding to pictorial and ethereal, when, as Costanza sings a welcome to death, slices of light form an appropriately ephemeral prison. Jean-Marc Puissant and Christopher Ackerlind are responsible for the set and costumes and lighting respectively. Wigs and make-up, flawless as always, were the work of Tom Watson

Tai Oney as Oronte and Tim Mead as Richard the Lionheart in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s 2015 production of Richard the Lionheart.
Credit Ken Howard
Tai Oney as Oronte and Tim Mead as Richard the Lionheart in "Richard the Lionheart."

The opera is constructed of a quotidian plot, one that resembles part of Mozart’s “Idomeneo” (1781) as well as reminders of  Sir William Schwenck Gilbert’s and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s 1889  “The Gondoliers.” Lovers – Costanza and primo uomo King Richard, who’ve never laid eyes on each other, are brought together via storm, shipwreck and the British Navy on the island of Cyprus. There are pseudonyms and disguises and the evil presence of the tyrant Isacio. His redemption-minded daughter, Pulcheria, and her fiancé, Oronte, eventually get everything back on track, assisted ably by Costanza’s servant, Berardo. This frail story swells to three hours and a quarter on the stage and in the orchestra pit.

I wanted it never to stop.

Besides the braided quality of the production, one sensed also a tide of time, in which the Baroque might fade to 2015 then back again, or where a simple act of domestic necessity – folding sheets – fills with humanity and warmth what might have been decidedly dead moments on stage.  A brief dance sequence engaged movement that evoked mental images of the formality of a fussy European court, but in the blink of an eye, or the flick of a wrist, the movements brought sensations of contemporaneity.

Sean Curran choreographed the enchanted dancing and the fight choreographer was Shaun Sheley. The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra provided brilliant accompaniment for the singers, all of whom were extraordinary not only musically but also in bravura displays of stamina.

Susannah Biller is the delicate and frightened Costanza, who is betrothed to Richard the Lionheart, sung by Tim Mead. Pulcheria is sung by Devon Guthrie; she is the daughter of Isacio, and on-again, off-again betrothed of Oronte. Adam Lau is the patient, faithful and ubiquitous servant Bernardo. It is a joy and a privilege to encounter such a talented and carefully balanced ensemble of singing actors. Praise belongs to them in equal measure.

Credit public domain
Richard the Lionheart from a 12th-century codex

This exulting opera had its London premiere 1727, a year when two German Georges assumed extraordinary prominence in Great Britain. That year, the Hanoverian prince George Augustus, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg and Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire, became George II, King of Great Britain and Ireland. His ascent to the throne coincided with the Baroque composer George Frideric Handel’s naturalization as a British subject. That year also, Handel composed four coronation anthems for the new king and his queen, Caroline. One of them is “Zadok the Priest,” and it has been played at every British monarch’s coronation since.

George II wasn’t too keen on matters aesthetical, and professed, or confessed, to hating “Boetry and Bainting.” Apparently his antipathy did not extend to music. Handel worked in the service of the Crown, and was employed by George II when his “Music for the Royal Fireworks” received its premiere in Green Park in London for an audience of 12,000, the king among them.

The coronation anthems and the Royal Fireworks music firmly fixed Handel’s position at court and took him over the jumps on the British society steeplechase. With these compositions Handel created something of a Georgian triple crown, because in addition to his work for George II, he’d composed “Royal Water Music” for George I, George II’s father.

In addition, also in 1726-1727, Handel wrote this magnificent opera now in the repertory of Opera Theatre. It was written in Italian and its actual title is Riccardo primo, re d’inghilterra – Richard the First, King of England. Riccardo primo would have difficulty recognizing himself in this show, having been turned inside out and deposited in the ahistorical narrative written in Italian by Paolo Antonio Rolli, based upon a tale called Isacio tiranno by Francesco Briani.  

No matter, really. “Richard the Lionheart” is an opera seria and is as the Italian words indicate, a serious opera, a drama or a work of propaganda or polemic or all of that. Hewing to history is never a necessity on the opera stage, and facts are kicked around like so many soccer balls.  Besides their fictional qualities, opere serie often give new meaning to the term convoluted, with mistaken identities, disguises, intrigues and deceptions running riot through them.

Naomi Lebowitz, emeritus professor of English Literature at Washington University and one of my most cherished mentors, offered me wisdom I carry with me always. Through fiction, she told a bunch of us sophomores, is the best approach to Truth.

And so, emerging from all that seems lunatic on the stage are lessons to be pondered and truths to be discerned. In the case of Richard the Lionheart, the judicious application of royal power is appreciated; knotty and variously implausible situations are confronted and solved satisfactorily; charity and forgiveness are noble and we see them meted out generously. An ultimately and most importantly peace is to be sought.

These serious nuggets require us to pay attention as the action moves along, and work our way through the conflicts and resolutions, and the subsequent peace, fragile and uneasy as it is. But in this glorious show, along with a steady and fluent stream of music so beautiful it brings tears of ineffable pleasure to your eyes – all of that plus the dynamism that pervades all is at variance with stiff and stilted productions of Handel’s operas. However, you’ll find no mugging here, no egregious lapses of decorum.

Thus a keen sense of the respect demanded by serious opera is valued, respected and enforced throughout the show. And in the end, as one recalls what has happened on the stage, serious matters come into focus -- serious observations about greed and unbridled passion, brushes with rape and murder, the grim casualties of war hanging from a gibbet – all the poisons produced in the 12th century when the authentic Richard lived, and before and after, for as long as humans have inhabited the earth.

And yet, in Richard the Lionheart’s medieval day, and in Handel’s day and in our own time, when evil and darkness seem to threaten on all sides there are peaceful resolutions and the blossoming of true love – and, on Opera Theatre’s stage, there is music that exalts the mind and comforts the soul.

And so. rather than shouting bravo as these artists make their bows, we might instead give forth with a rousing Da Capo! “Maestro, take it back to the top, please, take all the time you want and take us, with this opera,  all the way to its hope-filled conclusion.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.