Richard Löwenherz by Handel and Telemann at Magdeburg

When Handel’s Riccardo Primo was performed in Hamburg in 1729 it was given in a version prepared by Telemann then active there and it was his version which was the leading event in this year’s Telemann festival at Magdeburg. Richard Löwenherz differs from the London original in three significant respects. I had no problem with the recitatives being in German, nor indeed the addition of a loyal follower of the heroine who was given an expressive aria. But the imposition of a cross-dressing couple to provide a comic commentary on Handel’s account of rescuing love from betrayal by heroic valour diminished, rather than enhanced, the original.

That apart, this was a splendid exposition of baroque opera. Praise in the first place for the conductor David Stern at the head of a combination of his own Opera Fuoco and members of the Magdeburg Philharmonic. As well as endowing the performance with an energetic momentum, he brought out all the details in Handel’s brilliant instrumentation, culminating in a remarkable, introduction to an aria in the second half of the work. The music hesitates, stops and uncertainly starts again, providing a striking dramatic realisation of the singer’s despair and indecision.

Michael McCarthy, director of Music Theatre Wales, is very experienced in this repertory and offered a sober, concentrated production in which stage business was restricted to essential movements and interaction with some symbolic props, including water, flowers and cloaks. Simon Banham’s decor was likewise constrained, though clouds in varying shades of white and grey regularly descending from the flies to reflect different emotional states became somewhat tiresome.

The Magdeburg performance followed Telemann in opting for a baritone Richard and though Johannes Wollrab has a fine voice it was stretched by Handel’s ornamentation. Dramatically, he nevertheless cut a sympathetically heroic figure. Juliette Allen was convincing as his betrothed, particularly when dejected by events, but what she delivered vocally was sometimes thin and shrill. As the villain king who tries to seduce her, Louis Rouiller sang competently but in appearance was too young and in demeanour insufficiently threatening. Raffaela Lintl in the role of his daughter was perhaps the most satisfying of the soloists, the purity of tone of her soprano being matched by her assurance in negotiating the coloratura passages. As her lover, Filippo Mineccia, with his brilliant and powerful counter tenor was also in his element in this music.

My overall conclusion? Handel without Telemann is to be preferred, but the version performed was certainly interesting and with a conductor and stage director expert in this repertory the experience at Magdeburg was a rewarding one.