on 14 June 2008
Riccardo Primo is one of those "quite good" Handel operas - not a patch on the magnificent Admeto which was premiered in the same year, but better than the rather bland Siroe which followed it.
Christophe Rousset's 1996 set has had the field to itself for over a decade. It's a fine performance, well played, sung and directed but I've always felt it to be a little unexciting. While there's no shortage of vitality, I have always sensed a certain lack of variety permeating the three hours of music.
However, it has been universally applauded by music critics, so Paul Goodwin needed to come up with something pretty good to trump Monsieur Rousset.
So how does he do?
Well, the first thing one notices is the choice of singer for the title role. Goodwin opts for countertenor Lawrence Zazzo over a female alto or mezzo. In that respect I suppose one could argue that Sara Mingardo (Rousset's set) perhaps sounds closer to what the original singer, Senesino, might have sounded like - although of course we will never know. However, this is not an impersonation contest and I personally prefer listening to Zazzo. He has a beautiful voice; sweet, but strong enough to avoid the choirboy sound that can so easily spoil the interpretation of these heroic roles.
In other respects, I think Rousset may just have the edge. Nuria Rial sings the role of Costanza well enough, but I think anyone attempting to go head-to-head with Sandrine Piau has to accept the inevitable.
The villain, Isacio, is sung by David Wilson-Johnson. As good as he is, I think that Roberto Scaltriti for Rousset is quite superb.
One weakness in Rousset's set is Claire Brua. I cannot warm to her rather rich and plumy tone. Geraldine McGreevy's voice, while not exceptional, is therefore preferable to my ears.
The two Orontes are pretty evenly matched. Tim Mead may just have the edge for Goodwin.
So far then, little to chose between the two sets.
However, where I think Paul Goodwin steals a march on his competitor is in his much less predicable approach to the music. In particular, he employs a far wider range of tempi than Rousset, and some are more appropriate to the music. He also achieves a notable success in the opening storm, which sounds more powerful than Rousset's somewhat weak rendition.
He paces the work well, although to be fair Riccardo Primo is not a dramatic masterpiece and this is arguably less crucial than it would be in, say, Tamerlano or Serse.
The orchestra have a big part to play in the success of the set and it is on fine form. I think the bass-line does benefit from the addition of a second theorbo. While on a couple of occasions there is a bit of over-enthusiastic strumming from them, they add a good extra element of thrust to some of the music. I am aware that Handel only ever employed one in his opera orchestra, but it's a small addition and as far as I can see the rest of Goodwin's decisions accord with the composer's intentions (aside from the non-availability of castrati!)
Unfortunately the sound quality is that it isn't quite a match for Decca's superb recording. It's a bit murky but most of the detail still comes through well - by way of comparison, George Petrou's recent recording of Tamerlano suffers to a much greater extent.
So the winner is? Well, these are two very evenly-matched sets and most listeners would , I suspect, be content with either. However, for me, Goodwin's set is more exciting, more interesting and ultimately more enjoyable to listen to and it his version that will be in my CD player for some time to come.
I agree almost completely with the previous reviewer "Paul C", and will only add a few additional points. One I do not hear any fuzziness in the recorded sound, but I do hear annoying errors in the Italian pronounciation in the singing of Streetman (Berardo), who doesn't seem to know how a double consonant changes the pronounciation compared with a single consonant and Rial (Costanza) who doesn't know the difference between an open or a closed Italian "e" and has weakness in accent and consonant sounds, all of which could have easily been corrected with a little help from the language coach. The difference between this version and the Rousset is that the orchestral playing is much more dynamic and almost grabs you by the collar and makes you pay attention in a way. So as the previous reviewer said this is why it is more dramatic than the Rousset version, and ultimately more enjoyable even though Piau is a better Costanza, everything overrides the better singing quality of Piau on the Rousset recording and thus makes this the recording of choice in my opinion.
Final point: there is NO PRINTED LIBRETTO BOOKLET included. You have to print one from the PDF file included on CD 1. This I find deplorable for a first issue recording.
on 30 December 2008
Listening to 'Riccardo Primo' in isolation one could easily conclude that it is the finest of the five operas written during the 'Rival Divas' era - there is a great deal of wonderful music in this opera and the plot is reasonably intriguing and not too ridiculous (as opera seria plots generally go). Of course in truth 'Admeto' is probably the best of the five but I very much enjoyed trawling through 'Riccardo Primo' again in this recording of the piece by Paul Goodwin on DHM.
Having owned the older recording from Rousset for some years now, I was curious to hear this newer version especially as reviews have been so favourable. Finding a clear 'winner' between the two recordings is pretty much impossible however as both versions have much to recommend them. I do agree that Goodwin gets more drama from the piece and is the more exciting of the two. Rousset's reading is beautifully detailed but more laid back. Often Goodwin's tempos are more upbeat and I think this benefits the piece - the storm music is much improved.
As to casting, well that's going to be down to personal preference. Mingardo is in glorious, sumptious voice for Rousset in the title role but again, Lawrence Zazzo makes more of the words and is the more exciting singer. By conntrast, Piau has the more dramatic voice as Costanza (for Rousset) but then again perhaps Nuria Rial's gentle, soft-grained voice is more apt for this wilting violet role. In the Faustina role of Pulcheria, Claire Brua was always the blot on the landscape on Rousset's recording - her contralto really too fruity and heavy for the role. Geraldine McGreevy for Goodwin is far preferable and does make something dramatically of the role too. There is little to choose between the second countertenors - Pascal Bertin (Rousset) and Tim Mead (Goodwin) are both excellent. Nor did I find much to choose between the various basses although Scaltriti is very good as the villain for Rousset.
Ideally, Handelians should have both recordings as they both have their virtues. If pushed, perhaps I would have to say that the newer Goodwin recording has the edge (just).
on 21 November 2012
Not much to add to the other excellent review other than to say I agree! This is one of my top Handel opera recordings and it is a sheer delight. Geraldine McGreevy's Pulcheria is wonderful; clear as a bell and highly virtuosic. Zazzo proves more than capable of delivering the fiendishly difficult coloratura in the aria at the end of Act 1. And Tim Mead is a delight as Oronte, for example in V'adoro, o luci belle.
The plot is rather silly - basically it says that the British monarchy is really great! There are lines that say (very roughly) "England is built on the backs of all those great people who live near the Thames" alluding to the aristocracy in Handel's audience! There is a reason for this. Premiered on November 11 1727, it was just a month after King George II's coronation, and Handel had been recently granted British naturalisation... hence all the pomp and odd references to Britain in the setting of the Holy Land!
Riccardo Primo, Re d'Inghilterra contains some fantastic soprano arias. Written for the 'rival queens' (who literally fought on stage once), Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni were given very even-handed roles in this opera. In this recording, these prove wonderful material for our modern day sopranos: Geraldine McGreevy and Nuria Rial.
on 29 January 2013
Every Handel opera, however "little known" always betrays the incomparable genius that Handel was. So as an opera its a great discovery because it seems to me that the overall quality of this one, and others like Scipione, is very fine indeed with a high proportion of superb arias and varied and careful orchestration with a lot of attention to detail and colour, despite perhaps not the best example of recording clarity here.
In Feb 1727 Handel became British, and later that year finished Riccardo Primo - an English historical setting perhaps complementing his new-found nation status. In Nov 1727 the premiere included the very best singers - Senesino, Cuzzoni (Constanza), Faustina (Pulcheria) Boschi (Isacio), Baldi (Oronte).
Of the many brilliant arias, the following spring to mind: Se m'e contrario il Cielo (Constanza) beautiful, evocative; Di notte il pellegrino (Constanza) although the context is tragic, the wandering line of the soprano and the striking syncopated feel of bits of the ritornellos show a subtle, wry wit born along by the sheer beauty and bounty of the music; Ti vedro regnar sul trono & nel mondo e nell'abisso (Isacio) 2 tremendous force-laden arias for Boschi with real menace and compulsive contrapuntal drive; Alto immenso Poter (Constanza) short but profound; L'aquila altera (Pulcheria) very powerful aria for Faustina; Bacia per me la mano (Constanza) beautiful slow Handel.
This recording is a wonderful effort at this unjustly neglected masterpiece. At times I found the overall 'feel' & approach a little heavy, and there is a bit of reverb its true, but so what - this works very well for Alto immenso Poter, Isacio's arias, L'aquila altera and others. The sound has a 'live' quality to it which makes it fresh & present, but also at times results in the strange positioning of various orchestral sounds and some fuddle. My impression is that the recording/production might have supported the performers more.
Am not at all fond of the falsetto sound in Handel's operas, so while Lawrence Zazzo is fine he doesn't carry the part for me. Nuria Rial is wonderful, an early music/baroque specialist I think, and brings her own lovely qualities to the role - and she carries the burden of the big arias very well indeed - lovely voice.
There are inumerable things to quibble about, its not perfect, but its the best available recording to date. Winton Dean's comment that Di notte il pellegrino, if taken too fast, destroys it is indeed true of the only other recording available - but not here, Paul Goodwin has got it just right.