Riccardo primo, Re d’Inghilterra
~ HWV 23 ~

L'oiseau-lyre (DECCA) 452 201-2
3 CDs
full price
Recorded in 1995
Released in 1996

Riccardo primo: Sara Mingardo
Costanza: Sandrine Piau
Berardo: Olivier Lallouette
Isacio: Robert Scaltriti
Pulcheria: Claire Brua

Oronte: Pascal Bertin

Les Talens Lyriques (on period instruments)
Director: Christophe Rousset




Riccardo primo re d’Inghilterra is the first of the three Handel operas created during the last season of the Royal Academy of Music (1727-1728). Since Alessandro (1726) and the arrival of Faustina Bordoni, the rivalry between the two great sopranos Cuzzoni and Bordoni seems to have relegated Antonio Baldi to the status of secondo uomo. Finally his potential rivalry with Senesino did not last longer than one opera (Scipione 1726). Though being dominated by the Senesino-Bordoni-Cuzzoni trinity and being a sort of tribute to the English people (Riccardo is Richard the Lionheart), Riccardo primo is neither one of the most successful productions mounted by the Royal Academy of Music, nor of the Cuzzoni-Bordoni rivalry.

Like several of its close siblings, Riccardo primo is another example of an opera that has a spectacular opening, which in this case is a shipwreck. The overture runs directly through an accompanied recitative with an instrumental introduction in which timpani illustrate the tempest. After this really spectacular opening, both on musical and theatrical points of view, a succession of action arias which prefer contact between characters rather than the usual emphasis on inner contemplation makes the plot go on efficiently, but is maybe to the detriment of the depth of characters during the first act. Some beautiful arias show Costanza in flattering light, and Act I closes with the famous ‘Da fiere tempeste’ sung by Riccardo. Despite her musical interest, Costanza is not as interesting from a dramatic point of view, and her characterisation is quite poor compared to Pulcheria. Costanza is confined to lamenting her fate almost all through the opera, from the beautiful ‘Se perì l’amato bene’ (Act I scene 1, after the accompanied recitative) to ‘Bacia per me la mano‘ (Act III scene 4). Such a spectacular opening that which we find in Riccardo primo represents a challenge, particularly for the librettist, to keep the attention up. This libretto is not one of the best Handel set to music, and does not manage to balance the rivalry between two sopranos totally successfully (Admeto and Siroe are much better on that point).

Nevertheless, Handel’s music is far from being weak and this is a very good recording. The less satisfying elements of the cast are Pascal Bertin, whose performance is good but quite flat dramatically speaking, particularly if compared to what someone like Derek Lee Ragin is able to do in a part written for the castrato Baldi. (See Scipione). Though the qualities of Claire Brua’s voice and singing can make us guess why she is casted in a part written for Faustina Bordoni, she doesn’t really seem to have the powers for such a part and her timbre is not very nice. On the other hand, Sandrine Piau and Sara Mingardo both offer great performances. With some true trills lacking there, Sandrine Piau would be almost perfect as Costanza. Sara Mingardo’s voice has a rare dark, deep and rich tone, and her singing and musicality make her one of the best interpreters of Senesino’s roles. Christophe Rousset’s conducting is musical and accurate but sometimes not as dramatic as it could be, particularly in the choice of some tempos. All is very stylish but not contrasted enough. For example, Riccardo’s vengeance aria ‘O vendicarmi’ (Act II scene 6), supposed to be Vivace, is absolutely ‘charming’, as is the following ‘Dell’onor di giuste imprese’, Oronte’s great aria with horns. This is definitely a beautiful recording, but it could have been much better with very few changes. 

© Philippe Gelinaud - May 2005

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