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10 Oct 2005
“Teseo” is one of those “might have been” Handel operas that for one reason or another has never quite made the big time in a high profile, major house performance during our current period of baroque revival. However, this is not something that worries the enterprising likes of the Lautten Compagney Berlin and its Music Director Wolfgang Katschner nor the countertenor-turned-stage director Axel Kohler: for them this rather rare oddity of Handel’s genius is simply too good a chance to miss.
Why odd? Well, for one thing it is something of a throwback to an earlier French dramatic form, having a full five Acts (rather than the more usual three) wherein the major characters often sing arias or ariosi back to back. Also unusual is the complete lack of a significant bass-baritone or tenor role: all six protagonists are within the range of countertenor, mezzo-soprano or soprano — both male and female varieties. A single lower male voice appears in the very last scene as the convenient “deus ex machina” to neatly solve the lovers’ tangled situations — although the singer doesn’t appear to get a credit on this DVD recording.
This is a televised version of the original performances at the Halle festival in 2003, and of a later tour to the UK in 2004, although the singers are, with two exceptions, from the later performances. Having seen the London performance last year, this DVD certainly enhanced many aspects of the production that had failed to engage at the time — notably the acting of male soprano Jacek Laszczkowski in the title role and the production dynamic of the “Furies” scenes — both very much lacking that evening.
Overall though, the production for the camera is frustratingly mediocre — too many chances missed by the director to enhance the viewer’s sense of the drama going on before their eyes, too many meaningless close ups and sometimes it’s almost “cutaways by numbers” — someone sings about their hands, you get a shot of their hands….and so on. However, more successful are the low-key but efficient sets, (sliding panels, reflective materials) and colourful “textbook mythic Greece with added camp” costumes which help to create and maintain an atmosphere of rising passions and threatening danger from the Underworld.
Here the “wicked witch” figure of Medea is ravishingly played by Maria Riccarda Wesseling who certainly takes the honours for full-on acting and, together with Laszczkowski and Sharon Rostorf-Zamir as the woman that, in true Handel/Haym style, two men love, dominates in vocal distinction too. Unfortunately, there is a wide gap in quality between the high male voices: the Polish male soprano is here very secure and effective, sounding amazingly clear-toned even up at his highest reaches (and he sings remarkably high), and he does it all with admirable dramatic commitment. However, young Thomas Diestler’s alto (as Arcane) suffers until the latest Acts with that unfortunate, but all too common, affliction of the nervous or inexperienced CT: the “yodelling” tone that barely hides the root baritone below. Interestingly, this almost disappears, and you hear what he could sound like, in a faster, more assertive aria in Act Four, “Benche tuonie l’etra avvampi” so perhaps there is better to come. In London we had Johnny Maldonado as the weedy King Egeo, but here it is the less successful Martin Wolfel — a pale and rather unmemorable CT voice and a singer who looks uncomfortable on the stage. If Wesseling shows her vocal and dramatic experience as the conniving Medea, relishing the coloratura throughout, then she is matched in vocal dexterity and appeal by Rostorf-Zamir singing the role of the heroine Agilea. The role of second female lover, Clizia, is accurately and sweetly sung by a young Miriam Meyer.
Despite the vocal unevenness, and occasionally exasperating TV direction, this production is still one to recommend to all Handel enthusiasts: one feels that everyone is batting for the same side, the music is paramount (in spite of the almost de rigueur current European delight in adding superfluous sex scenes) and the composer is well served by an excellent period band under Katschner. It may not convince anyone that “Teseo” is the next “Rodelinda”, “Rinaldo” or “Guilio Cesare”, but at least we have another Handelian opera safely into the modern visual catalogue.
© Sue Loder 2005