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Reviews

<em>Teseo</em>: La Nuova Musica, 2018 London Handel Festival, St George’s, Hanover Square, London
16 Apr 2018

Handel's Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

The 2018 London Handel Festival drew to a close with this vibrant and youthful performance (the second of two) at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, of Handel’s Teseo - the composer’s third opera for London after Rinaldo (1711) and Il pastor fido (1712), which was performed at least thirteen times between January and May 1713.

Teseo: La Nuova Musica, 2018 London Handel Festival, St George’s, Hanover Square, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Olivia Warburton (Teseo)

 

I was rather surprised to read in the programme that this performance by David Bates’s La Nuova Musica and soloists from Royal Academy Opera aimed ‘to recreate the drama in the Perfection that would have been experienced by the audience in 1713 with scenes, decorations, flights and machines’. Okay, the columns, stained glass and reredos of St George’s are not without their architectural drama, but the idea that the sort of stage effects that Handel’s audiences enjoyed - Medea’s magic transforms a palace into a desert inhabited by horrid monsters, while she descends from a cloud in a chariot drawn by fire-breathing dragons - could be accommodated amid the narrow (and uncomfortable) oak pews and aisles would be stretching things somewhat.

I guess that this ambition was metaphorical and intended to be interpreted ‘in spirit’. Fortunately, no flames or thunderbolts flashed in the transepts, though the operations of Westminster Council Refuge Collection services and a few Harley Davidsons racing down St George’s Street towards Piccadilly Circus added some rumbles and reverberation to the proceedings.

However, there is sufficient fire in Handel’s setting of Nicola Francesca Haym’s libretto in five Acts - for the most part, as David Kimbell [1] was among the first to confirm, a translation of Philippe Quinault’s text for Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Thésée which was heard in Paris in 1675 - to keep the passions burning through the unfolding of a plot in which three couples ties themselves in romantic and political Gordian knots even more convoluted than the seria norm.

Let’s just say Medea has come to Athens as she expects King Egeo to fulfil his promise to marry her, so she is not best pleased when she learns that in fact he’d rather hitch up with Agilea, with whom he is obsessed, but who herself is not very enamoured of this proposition as she’d rather tie the knot with Teseo (Theseus, who returns her love, and who is the baby-son abandoned by Egeo in a far-off land - don’t fret about the reasoning or logic). Clizia and Arcane, confidants to Agilea and Teseo respectively, wish everyone would stop fussing so they can get wed, though Arcane is not averse to his own spot of jealous pique of his own, when he thinks Clizia has also fallen for Teseo’s charms. The plot is driven by Medea’s increasingly vengeful jealousy. When sorcery fails to serve up a satisfying resolution she stoops to an attempted poisoning of Teseo, but in the nick of time Egeo recognises his long-lost son and dashes the bitter chalice from his hand. The goddess Minerva intervenes to stop the enraged Medea from igniting a conflagration. All’s well that ends well.

My (minor) gripes first. The choreography of this performance was confusing. Though the da capo form predominates, many of the arias are quite short and there are an unusual number of duets. So, why place two individual members of a duo-number respectively in front of and behind the instrumental forces when they are supposed to be speaking/singing to each other? Why, for example, have Agilea tell Teseo that she longs for the day when she can ‘clasp you to my breast, O dearest!’ when she’d have to clamber over twenty instrumentalists to do so?

Then, tempi - which were, as is the way of things these days, fast. Now, no-one wants a three-hour-plus opera (not least when sitting in these back-breaking pews) to be dragged out to eternity, but there were moments here where Bates’s Tigger-ish impetuousness did not serve his soloists - a superb young cast - as well as more judicious (musical and dramatic) pacing might have done. And, as I commented in relation to La Nuova Musica’s performance of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Wigmore Hall a week ago, Bates’s obsession (not unworthy) with instrumental detail - at times, here I feared he might slide off the piano stool as he veered left and right, up and down, circling his hands to generate vigour (when things were already fizzing along), punching out bass points - risked making the instrumental parts relentless rather than rhetorically supportive. In general, it all felt rather bass heavy and effortful, whereas in fact Handel has done all the work and the music should simply speak for itself.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some splendid playing: the strings were charmingly robust but impressively unified in matters of ensemble and articulation; oboes were pungent, and Leo Duarte’s duetting the Agilea in ‘M’adora l’idol mio’ (My beloved adores me) almost stole the show, threatening to outdo the operatic theatricality, as voice and reed chased each other through Handel’s curlicues, up and down the scales and round the cadential corners. And, the accompanied recitatives were as startling as, surely, Handel intended, Medea’s summoning of the ‘Shades’ pierced by flawlessly tumbling unison strings and heart-churning pointed stabbings.

The RAO soloists made the back-breaking endurance unequivocally worthwhile. When I heard Ilona Revolskaya assail the flight-paths of the Air Traffic Controller in Jonathan Dove’s Flight last month - a production which inaugurated the opening of the Royal Academy of Music’s beautifully proportioned, acoustically advantageous new Susie Sainsbury Theatre, designed by Ian Ritchie - I admired the way she prowled along her raised perch and soared through the stratospheric vocal lines with equal imperiousness (Opera, May 2018). Here she was a stunning Agilea, her soprano by turns slicing through the air with ominous power and precision, and touching the heart with the poignant tones of self-sacrifice. Revolskaya has the ability to shape a lyrical line more enchanting than Medea’s magic, and ‘Deh v’aprite, o luci belle’ (Ah, open, lovely eyes) was beautifully enriched by obbligato recorders (Leo Duarte, Bethan White) - a wonderful and much needed moment of space and stillness amid the frantic proceedings, a drop of sweetness to assuage envy’s poison. ‘Amarti sì vorrei’ (Yes, I want to love you) was similar enhanced by Alex McCartney’s expressive theorbo.

I have admired Hannah Poulsom’s performances on several recent occasions, not least in Surrey Opera’s The Life to Come and though we had to wait until Act 2 to hear Medea’s passionate wrath, it was worth waiting for. The gravity with which Poulsom injected her mezzo - complemented by secure centring in the recitatives - captured all of the vengeful Medea’s frustration and anger. The rapid changes of mood proved more problematic, though, and Poulsom was not always able to marry the top and bottom of her voice; but, she was undeniably and winningly courageous and deserving of praise. Medea’s most fiery outbursts may have affected the intonation, but Poulsom effectively carried the drama, flashing blindingly at the top, snarling at the bottom, as required. One couldn’t fault her commitment and if it occasionally felt a bit too premature for her voice, then perhaps that’s what one-off student performances are for …

As Clizia, Alexandra Oomens’ diction was less clear than her peers, but she made good use of the rich colours of her mezzo and was very engaging dramatically: ‘Rispendente, amiche stelle’ (Beam down, friendly stars) seemed aflame with celestial heat, and her duets with Alexander Simpson’s Arcane were unfailingly alert and dramatic - and impressively off-score. Indeed, the precision and coordination of the duo’s cadential trills threatened to upstage the principals! Simpson’s countertenor occasionally seemed to lack supporting weight, but his voice is agile and the coloratura was accurate, especially in ‘Benché tuoni, e l’etra avvampi’ (Although it may thunder, and the sky become red) in Act 4.

Handel wrote the three male roles for soprano castrato (Teseo), alto castrato (Egeo), and female alto (Arcane), but here Teseo was taken by mezzo soprano Olivia Warburton, who characterised the role skilfully, from her first entrance from the rear of the nave. I was impressed by the way that Warburton showed appreciation of the way the Handelian rhythms can lighten the voice and convey heroic optimism and brightness. Moreover, the busy runs of ‘S’armi il fato, s’armi armore (Let fate take up arms, let love take up arms) caused no problem; equally, the simple lyricism of ‘Tengo in pugno l’idol mio’ (I clasp my idol) - noteworthy for some lovely interplay between solo violin and vocal line - was beguiling.

As Egeo, mezzo soprano Frances Gregory used her firm, rich sound impressively - always responsive and expressive - to convey regality and indignation in equal measure (one should note also Rodolfo Richter’s lovely violin obbligato in Egeo’s aria ‘Ricordati o bella’ (Remember, O fair one)).

Given the ceaselessness of the high voices, it was something of a relief when baritone Darwin Prakesh’s Sacerdote entered the raised pulpit in the closing moments, to bring us all down to earth in such warm, consoling and commanding fashion.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Teseo (London Handel Festival)

La Nuova Musica : David Bates (conductor/harpsichord)

Teseo - Olivia Warburton, Egeo - Frances Gregory, Agilea - Ilona Revolskaya, Clizia - Alexandra Oomens, Arcane - Alexander Simpson, Medea - Hannah Poulsom, Sacerdote - Darwin Prakash.

St George’s, Hanover Square; Saturday 14th April 2018.



[1] See Kimbell, ‘The Libretto of Handel's Teseo’, Music & Letters, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Oct., 1963), pp. 371-379.wa y

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