Richard the Lionheart | Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL)

Richard-the-Lionheart 75The actors sang the difficult melodies with such grace and beauty it almost saved the audience from the monotony of the performance.





Richard-the-Lionheart 500

Richard the Lionheart was written for two prima donnas with very different singing styles. Costanza (Susannah Biller) is the sorrowful betrothed to King Richard (Tim Mead). Pulcheria (Devon Guthrie) is the livelier and slightly sarcastic daughter to the villain Isacio (Brandon Cedel). According to an article in the OTSL program, George Frederic Handel hired two prima donnas in 1727 and the leading ladies of this opera were written to show each of the prima’s talents.

The American premiere of the English version of the opera starts off with Berardo (Adam Lau) rolling onto the stage after being shipwrecked. He pulls the wet and distraught Costanza out of the water. The two seek refuge in the island fortress, which is run by the tyrannical and self-absorbed Isacio. There Costanza hides her identity and is treated like a slave by Isacio, his daughter Pulcheria, and their household. After overhearing her betrothed, Oronte (Tai Oney), praise Costanza’s beauty, Pulcheria becomes vengeful. King Richard has also been shipwrecked and tries to find Costanza on the island; he disguises himself as an ambassador and demands Isacio to return his love; whom he has never met. Isacio’s maniacal mind devises a plan in which he sends Pulcheria in Costanza’s place and marries the fair Costanza. Pulcheria agrees, so that Oronte may suffer, and presents herself to the king. Oronte learns of the deception and warns King Richard and then swears fealty to him to seek his revenge on Isacio. Costanza and King Richard are reunited briefly and try to escape when she is kidnapped by Isacio’s henchmen and taken as his prisoner. A massive battle ensues and King Richard is reunited with Costanza.

Music from Handel is always a delight to listen to and the actors sang the difficult melodies with such grace and beauty it almost saved the audience from the monotony of the performance. The lyrics seem to have been written in haste, since every song could have been one fourth the time if the words had been sung only once. With three acts of relentless repetition, the opera is about an hour and a half too long. The music was brilliant and the singing angelic, especially by that of the two female leads and the two countertenors, Oney and Mead. Handel wrote the role of King Richard for a famous countertenor Francesco Bernadi “little Sienese” and is one of the most difficult roles Handel ever wrote.

It was a bit odd hearing such an innocent voice coming from a grown man, but the more the opera continued the more I grew to love it. It was like listening to a Christmas Boys choir. The vocal range was popular in the 18th century and came at a high price to the boys who were never allowed to hormonally mature to adulthood. We don’t do that now, but I understand why it was so popular. Just as fabulous were the two leading ladies Biller and Guthrie. Their musical numbers sounded equally as challenging as King Richard’s, and they were performed flawlessly.

By show’s end I was glad it was over; one can only take so many hours of monotony. Maybe there was a reason it hadn’t premiered in the United States before this date. | Becca Doran

Photo Credit: Ken Howard

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