Opera Theatre roars with ‘Lionheart’

Never before seen in the United States, Handel’s 18th century “Richard the Lionheart” has been turned into a regal, accessible production for modern-day audiences by Opera Theatre of St. Louis.

Marked by admirable debut performances and robust staging, the rigorous opera significantly benefited from the polished St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, crisply conducted by Grant Llewellyn, who brought the music to vibrant life.

The Baroque style popular in George Frideric Handel’s world can be challenging, and because of this work’s 36 arias, the vocals are arduous and the stamina intense. Nevertheless, a principal quartet of accomplished singers superbly delivered strong interpretations.

The German-born composer, currying favor with British society, crafted a more patriotic work in 1727, at the time George II ascended to the throne. Director Lee Blakely explained that this production retained that tone, a revisionist look at the 12th Century monarch.

The action is set on beaches, in forts, and an encampment in Cyprus, and the small ensemble immerses us in the human element of historical tussles for power.

In a virtuoso performance, countertenor Tim Mead made a stunning Opera Theatre of St. Louis debut as the swashbuckling King awaiting the arrival of his bride. But calamity strikes, and on his way to the Third Crusades, he must thwart chicanery.

Mead masterfully sang, effortlessly reaching the score’s demanding falsetto notes, initially written for a castrato. The requirements of the taxing role are truly a test in endurance.

Sturdy Brandon Cedel was a noteworthy villain – greedy, arrogant and power-mad as Cyprus’ tyrannical ruler Isacio. He stoops to new lows when he uses his daughter Pulcheria to fool Richard into thinking she is his future wife Constanza, who has been shipwrecked.

The despicable plan propels the conflict, and the dramatic turns of the libretto are riveting. The relationships do indeed become complicated.

Susannah Biller is impressive as the stressed-out heroine Costanza, trying to survive her ordeal, her wedding plans delayed, with despair setting in about her future. She emotionally delivered soaring vocals.

In a memorable debut, Devon Guthrie is feisty and passionate as the tempestuous Pulcheria, a pawn in her father’s evildoings, fighting for her life. Although she is not entirely innocent, she made us care about her plight.

Also strong are Tai Oney, as Oronte, Pulcheria’s fiancé, and Adam Lau as loyal servant Berardo, making their OTSL debuts too.

The staging by director Lee Blakeley is interesting, and the centerpiece of the scenic design – a battered ship – is quite striking. Jean-Marc Puissant designed both the sparse but effective set and expertly detailed costumes, with gorgeous, ovation-worthy royal attire in the finale.

Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design added a dramatic difference to numerous confrontations.

“Richard the Lionheart” is a lengthy opera in three acts, with two intermissions, for a performance lasting 3 hours, 45 minutes.

The libretto by Paulo Antonio Rolli, adapted from Francesco Briani , stresses fighting for love, honor, God and country. We can understand, although there is a later scene involving an escaped bird that seemed unnecessary.

The music, as beautiful as it is, is sometimes repetitive, as was the fashion in opera halls in 1727.

But the orchestra, and the performers, excelled at presenting a work of clarity and conviction, helping us get over the complex hurdles.

“Richard the Lionheart”

Who: Opera Theatre of St. Louis

When: June 24 and 26

Where: Loretto-Hilton Mainstage, 130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves

Box office: 314-961-0644