Philharmonia Baroque’s “Teseo” teeters between broad comedy, deeper emotions at Tanglewood

August 16, 2014
By David Wright

Amy Freston, Amanda Forsythe, and Dominique Labelle in the Philharmonia Baroque performance of Handel’s “Teseo” Thursday night at Tanglewood. Photo: Hilary Scott

It took a while to realize it, but what Nicholas McGegan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and vocal soloists were offering in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall Thursday night was not Handel’s Teseo, but the Handel’s Teseo cast-party skit.

Faced with a libretto whose credibility problems were extreme even by the lax standards of Baroque opera seria, McGegan and cast (and the uncredited stage director, if any) capitulated to the inevitable, playing the stage action mostly for laughs, to the audience’s chuckling pleasure.

For much of Act I, this reviewer thought he was merely watching weak acting and shaky singing.  It wasn’t until countertenor Drew Minter as the mighty, victorious King Aegeus of Athens—he has a whole sea named for him, after all—sidled onstage in a green velvet jacket and ascot, doing funny things with his wrists, that the gag became plain for even the humor-challenged to see.  Broad or subtle, the funny business came thick after that.

In such a jokey environment, it was an effort to re-suspend disbelief each time one of the gorgeous arias began.  But if anybody could make you do it, the endlessly inventive Handel could, with his ever-fresh supply of attractive melodies and felicities of orchestration.  A capable cast mostly overcame the awkwardness of trying to sell a serious aria after having been laughed at seconds before.

One felt for their predicament.  Teseo is very much a horse designed by a committee, and the motive for its creation was at least as much commercial as artistic.

In February 1711, Handel made musical history with the wild success of Rinaldo, his first opera for London.  A melodious score, first-rate singing, eye-popping spectacle and special stage effects created an instant fan base for this “exotic and irrational entertainment,” as Samuel Johnson later called Italian opera seria.

When a second Handel opera, the more modest and lyrical Il pastor fido, failed to please, the composer knew he had to come up with another Rinaldo, and fast.  A French libretto for Teseo, based on an early episode in the life of the mythical warrior-king Theseus, and in five acts instead of the customary Italian three, was pressed into service.

While French operas used long passages of recitative and dances to move the story along, Handel’s audience wanted arias, arias, arias.  So the composer and his librettist hacked away at the recitative sections until any semblance of a believable plot was gone.

In its place, they laid on ghosts, ghouls, a fire-breathing dragon, and Athens in flames—all courtesy of the angry sorceress Medea– as well as so many arias that sometimes a character had to sing two in a row before making the customary grand exit to applause.

Ultimately, Teseo overcame balky stage equipment–and a little matter of the theater manager’s absconding with the box-office receipts–to become Handel’s second hit in London.  Presumably mindful of its deficiencies as theater, Handel never revived it, but Handel-hungry audiences in the later 20th century prompted several productions, including one in Boston in 1985.

Thursday’s concert was staged enough to allow the singers to make their dramatic post-aria exits.  For no apparent reason other than variety, the singers occasionally delivered their arias (including two of the brilliant act-curtain numbers) from the choral risers behind the orchestra.

The costumes were simple and eclectic, mildly suggesting their character’s rank or personality.  Two plain benches downstage sufficed for furniture (a chair was added in Act V to serve as Aegeus’s throne).

The orchestra was upstage, arranged in a doughnut around McGegan standing at a harpsichord, so that the nearest violinists’ backs were to the audience.  (One of them endearingly twisted around to take in the stage action when only the continuo was playing.)  This arrangement, and the hall’s sound-eating high ceiling, somewhat muted the orchestra’s vigorous and colorful contributions to the proceedings.

Mention must be made, however, of oboist Marc Schachman, whose rich-toned obbligatos enlivened several arias, and who gamely tackled an impossibly fast coloratura duet with soprano Amy Preston as the king’s ward Agilea.

Vocally, the concert offered many pleasures and a few puzzles.  The heroic male roles were allotted to two countertenors and a soprano.  The powerful effect of Handel’s castrati is rarely approximated by modern countertenors, so allowances had to be made.

Minter’s campy interpretation of Aegeus was no doubt tailored to his voice, which on Thursday was as velvety as his green jacket.  For his rage aria in Act IV, however, he shed his ascot and mannerisms, and delivered some fierce, fist-shaking coloratura.

Dressed like a bank branch manager with his tie off, Robin Blaze as the young lover Arcane at first just sounded like a guy singing falsetto, but later found expressive phrasing and some ringing head tones.  The celestial tuning and blend of his duets with soprano Céline Ricci as Clizia provided some of the sonic highlights of the evening.

Slim, ponytailed, a little physically awkward and dressed in a cream-colored suit, soprano Amanda Forsythe as Theseus (Teseo) looked more Cherubino than the blood-spattered warrior of the text.  In the context of this concert, one can assume that her head-ducking and lurching around the stage were meant as a send-up of male behavior, not an actual portrayal of the mythological hero.

Forsythe’s spreading top notes and receding middle ones were a recognizable vocal style, but not one much to this listener’s liking.  However, one of the evening’s delights was Forsythe’s and Preston’s matching melismas-gone-wild in the extravagant coloratura finale of Act IV.

With her outstanding vocal power and stage presence, Ricci had if anything too much wattage for the ingénue role of Clizia, but one found oneself looking forward to her appearances nonetheless.

Preston sang the many-sided role of king’s ward, hero’s lover, and sorceress’s victim in a clear, flexible soprano.  Her long, unadorned renunciation aria in Act IV—Handel’s greatest achievement in this score—was, appropriately, the expressive high point of Thursday’s concert.

As Medea, soprano Dominique Labelle came on all sweet and maternal at first, then mined comic gold with her instantaneous, jealousy-induced, Incredible Hulk-like transformation into Woman Scorned.

Thereafter, she prowled the stage, menacing all the characters (especially poor, unoffending Agilea) with her magic wand, singing not only a spectacular rage aria in Act II but a briefer “rage encore” in Act IV, and summoning all the special effects from ghouls to monsters to balls of fire.  (These, unfortunately, could only be imagined at this performance; they didn’t even flicker the house lights.)

Vocally, Labelle brought to her part a rich, room-filling tone and considerable agility in the coloratura.  Her acting and movement had style and presence, and if it was a bit one-note, well, so was the character.

Tenor Jonathan Smucker and baritone Jeffrey Fields filled out the choruses admirably, the latter also doing an imposing turn as the good-news messenger from the goddess Minerva, who saves everyone from Medea’s flames at the end.

McGegan led his large orchestra–bolstered at times by extra recorders, flutes, and trumpets–with incisiveness and zest, providing the foundation for a performance that was, musically at least, always satisfying and often more than that.

The audience was clearly having a good time on this festival night in the Berkshires.  Still, one doubts that, outside the dorm lounges at Juilliard, un-serious opera seria will become a fixture of concert life.

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