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'Richard the Lionheart' is much loved, seldom seen

| Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
David Bachman Photography
Isacio, the governor of Cyprus (Andy Berry) fills his daughter Pulcheria (Claudia Rosenthal) in on his plot in Pittsburgh Opera's 'Richard the Lionheart.'
David Bachman Photography
Pulcheria (Claudia Rosenthal) presents herself to King Richard I (Leah de Gruyl) in Pittsburgh Opera's 'Richard the Lionheart'
David Bachman Photography
Pulcheria (Claudia Rosenthal), her father Isacio (Andy Berry), and King Richard’s “ambassador” (Leah de Gruyl) in Pittsburgh Opera's 'Richard the Lionheart.'

Even Pittsburgh's most seasoned opera buffs won't turn up their noses at Pittsburgh Opera's latest selection, George Frideric Handel's Baroque opera “Richard the Lionheart,” or “Ricardo Primo.”

This rarely seen piece, first performed in 1727 at the King's Theatre in London, has only been performed once before in America, in a 2015 staging by the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. Handel, though most famous in popular culture for his religious oratorio Messiah and its beloved “Hallelujah Chorus,” was a popular and prolific composer, writing the scores to 42 operas and more than 150 choral and vocal works.

Handel's opera, loosely inspired by the historical King Richard I of England, tells the tale of a marriage pact between the British king (originally played by a castrated male, but played in Pittsburgh by mezzo-soprano Leah de Gruyl) and the Spanish princess Costanza (Shannon Jennings). Before the two betrothed can meet, Costanza is shipwrecked, and the manipulative governor Isacio (Andy Berry) attempts to thwart Richard and steal Costanza for himself. Mistaken identities, love triangles and war follow, as Richard journeys to Isacio's home in Cypress to right what has gone wrong.

“People are interested in stories of kings and queens, stories of medieval times,” says Pittsburgh Opera artistic director Christopher Hahn. “It has a certain ‘Braveheart' resonance, which is the flavor of the month,” given the popularity of fantasy epics like “Game of Thrones.”

Though Handel wrote the titular role of Richard for a castrato, Hahn says there is a long tradition of female mezzo-sopranos who have trained to create the sense of a male character, even as audiences know they are seeing and hearing a female.

“Back then, the male members of the audience loved the fact that they might see the legs of a female in pants; that, of course, was very, very risqué in earlier centuries,” Hahn says. “Composers of that period relished the chance to write love duets for two female voices as well, since the male tenor voice was not considered as beautiful as that of the female.”

Part of the appeal of the Baroque tradition for Hahn and the rest of Pittsburgh Opera is the unique opportunity it gives for singers and musicians to rehearse and perform together. One central difference between the performance practice of Baroque opera and later forms is the use of continuo, a small orchestral ensemble who underscore the recitative, or sung dialogue, between the major arias and choral pieces.

Pittsburgh Opera has partnered with Chatham Baroque to create the continuo trio, with three musicians accompanying the singers on period-authentic instruments such as the long-stemmed lute.

“(Baroque opera continuo) is incredibly free, and allows the players and performers to play off each other, with give and take for dramatic import or vitality,” Hahn says. “It's almost like jazz. People may think of classical music as rigid and fixed, but the Baroque tradition is much more fluid and flexible.”

Over the past 15 years, Hahn has repeatedly programmed lesser-known Baroque operas, stating that “the response has been enormous” and that he has more than enough selections to keep this series-within-a-series going for the next 10 years. Neoclassical novices and baroque buffs alike will surely find much to enjoy at Pittsburgh Opera's “new old opera.”

Greg Kerestan is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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