Review: Pittsburgh Opera falls short in ambitious staging of Handel's 'Richard the Lionheart'
January 26, 2017 6:50 PM
David Bachman Photography
Isacio, the governor of Cyprus (Andy Berry) forces his daughter Pulcheria (Claudia Rosenthal) to impersonate Costanza to trick King Richard I into marrying her in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Handel's "Richard the Lionheart."
David Bachman Photography
Costanza (Shannon Jennings) plays right into Isacio's (Andy Berry) hand in Pittsburgh Opera's production of Handel's "Richard the Lionheart."
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For any opera company, resuscitating an old opera is almost like staging a new one: There is a sense of discovery in unearthing a rarely performed work.
For Pittsburgh Opera, the attractions of staging Handel’s “Richard the Lionheart” are manifold. Other than the company’s current production, the Handel opera has been presented just one other time in the U.S. And the work gives Pittsburgh Opera’s young resident artists, featured in this production at Pittsburgh CAPA, an opportunity to explore baroque territory and techniques.
At Tuesday’s performance, the resident artists largely demonstrated they were up to the task of singing this challenging music, but the lackluster production did not exhibit the full potential of Handel’s work.
Known in Italian as “Riccardo primo,” the 1727 opera is based on true events from the Third Crusade. Riccardo’s fiancée, Costanza, is involved in a shipwreck, becoming the prisoner of the tyrant Isacio, and the story follows the king’s rescue mission for his betrothed.
The work has a patriotic, good-versus-evil quality, yet it also has many opportunities to deepen the drama: various romantic entanglements, a war, several moments of deceit. Unfortunately, the staging by Crystal Manich did not tap into those tensions, and the characters’ actions were rather limited (or gratuitous).
The singers were impressive, but they could have brought much more feeling to their roles. Soprano Claudia Rosenthal, portraying Isacio’s daughter, Pulcheria, achieved the greatest balance between musical and dramatic interest. Her character, insulted by her fiancé Oronte’s pursuit of Costanza, became more complex over the course of the opera. Ms. Rosenthal achieved this maturation through her delivery — both comic and sympathetic — and her willingness to have fun with ornamentation. Those efforts sometimes compromised her technical output, but she took risks with the role and gave it a memorable portrayal.
As Costanza, soprano Shannon Jennings had a bell-like, liquid tone but maintained a rather one-dimensional, anguished affect throughout the performance. Bass Andy Berry, playing Isacio, owned his character’s creepiness with a gravelly, buzzy tone.
Two women portrayed Riccardo and Oronte, roles originally written for castratos. In the title role, mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl exhibited agility and separation through complicated vocal lines and delivered a fine, trill-filled love duet with Ms. Jennings, but her depiction could have benefited from more king-like charisma. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven’s rich, deep timbre suited the role of Oronte, but she, too, could have given a more nuanced portrayal. Brian Vu impressed in the small role of Berardo. The singers’ stamina and technical grounding was on display in the final chorus.
Conducted by Michael Beattie, the orchestra featured early music trio Chatham Baroque and offered a jaunty baroque sound, overcoming some early problems with pitch and separation from the singers.
Performances repeat at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
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