20 Mar 2007
Teseo — Handel by the Sea
Nice Opera, on the French Cote d’Azur, seemed a most suitable place for this early work by Handel.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
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Nice Opera, on the French Cote d’Azur, seemed a most suitable place for this early work by Handel.
The opera house itself is a stone’s throw from the Mediterranean and, with the pale blue shallows merging into the proverbial “wine dark sea” of legend beyond, it didn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to envisage these waters carrying the ships of Theseus, Aegeus and Medea to their immortality. Helping this conceit along was the fact that this particular production designed by Gilbert Blin and conducted from the violin by Gilbert Bezzina pulled absolutely no punches in terms of the oft-maligned term “authentic”. If the great man himself had time-travelled from 1714 to 2007 and walked into the theatre as the curtain rose, he surely would have nodded approvingly at everything he saw beyond the footlights and, mostly, heard from the pit.
Make no mistake; this was very serious opera seria. From the painted clouds to the bewigged and silken-gowned protagonists, from the hand-shaken thunder machine to the monsters rolled on from the sides, this was as near to an authentic experience of baroque opera as might be achieved today. Its quaint charm - not to mention the gorgeous stuffs of the costumes - beguiled the eye at every turn. So much so in fact, that it was all too easy to almost ignore occasional vocal lapses that elsewhere in a starker, more real-politik, setting might have been more prominent.
These lapses were highlighted by the fact that in terms of even Handel’s soundscapes, Teseo is unusual. There is no bass or tenor role, and the characters are sung by sopranos (both male and female), mezzo-sopranos and, today, counter-tenors. When the mixed chorus including lower voices occasionally makes a vocal entrance it thus has a surprisingly sonorous effect. The mainly French speaking cast of principles are not widely known beyond western Europe: soprano Brigitte Hool as the heroine Agilea, who loves Teseo, the returning warrior to the court of King Egeo, was by far the most accomplished and appealing of voices on display with a nice line in delicate ornamentation, good diction and a charming stage personality. In contrast, the wicked-witch character of Medea, that epitome of woman-wronged and vengeful, sung by mezzo soprano Aurelia Legay, was anything but delicate – except in volume which was sadly lacking in the early Acts. By the fourth and fifth she seemed to have found her full voice, but a little late. Egeo, not a large role, was sung by the very experienced French counter-tenor Pascal Bertin who showed a real baroque feel for this music, if not exactly setting the stage alight with his vocalism. The “sub-plot” pair of lovers, so often used by Handel to fill out the stories and the score, were sung by soprano Valerie Gabail (Clitia) and young French counter-tenor Damien Guillon (Arcane). The latter was certainly the most exciting discovery of the performance with a firm vocal production, consistent through the range, and with true alto warmth with no hootiness or recourse to root voice. A young man to watch in this field. Of the principles, that leaves the title role, and here there was disappointment. Having heard male soprano Jacek Laszczowski sing this role in England last year, it was perturbing to hear his obvious vocal problems throughout this production. They seemed to centre on his inability to produce his male soprano effectively in the lower reaches of the recitatives and ariosi. The sounds produced then were not pleasant – in contrast to some of his arias where when he sang at the top of the staff and beyond and his voice produced both beautiful pianissimos and clarion fortes. Let us hope that this is a temporary situation.
Apart from the singers and costumes, much of the authentic feel of this production came from the musical support of the “Ensemble baroque de Nice” – one of the major baroque groups in southern France – ably if somewhat pedantically led from the violin by their Director, Gilbert Bezzina. One could not argue with his reading of the score, but his tempi sometimes dragged down an already-top-heavy (if only by the huge wigs) staging even more than was perhaps inevitable.
Sue Loder © 2007