COT has another early Handel winner with ‘Teseo’
Chicago Sun-Times and suntimes.com, Sunday April 22, 2012 10:30PM CDT
A rare Handel, done with the utmost care by Chicago Opera Theater
◆ Through May 2
◆ Chicago Opera Theater, at the Harris, 205 E. Randolph
◆ Tickets, $22.50-$125
BY ANDREW PATNER
Chicago Opera Theater has another winner with the Chicago premiere of yet another little- known Handel opera.
While the early 18th century composer and his seemingly endless reserves of creativity are the engines behind this work’s success, it’s amazing how many things seemed new at the opening Saturday night of COT’s “Teseo.” An Italian-language work inspired the Greek hero Theseus early in his career — and the love and intrigue that swirl around him, thanks in no small part to that inspirer of many an opera and drama, the sorceress Medea.
The music, for one. Except for the overture and an occasionally plucked out or reworked aria, “Teseo” was new material for Handel (at 28, he had already recycled almost entire operas’ worth of melodies and concepts in other works); hearing it as a whole today is revelatory for the audience.
The work essentially disappeared after its 1713 London premiere until a one-off German revival just after World War II. It wasn’t done in Britain or the United States until the mid-1980s and only rarely since.
The story’s freshness and emotions are alive, too, especially under James Darrah’s stage direction. Sure, these are mythical characters but if you prick them, they bleed and if you tickle them, they laugh. Throw in a pair of loyal servants who have found their own romance and the oh-so-human weaknesses of a king, and the story of conflicting loyalties and attempts to control one’s own heart resonates more than many another opera tale.
The youth and integrity of the singers and of the pit musicians as well account for the success of COT’s production. In addition to their individual talents, they are artists who have grown up without thinking that “early” music or its voice categories and instruments are in any way strange. So under Michael Beattie’s musical direction, there’s a naturalness that’s wholly inviting and appealing. The three hours, including one intermission, roll by.
The talent onstage just does not stop: from the southern Italian soprano Manuela Bisceglie, not yet 22, as the king’s ward and Teseo’s lover, Agilea, through members and alumni of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Center and the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann program, to countertenors hailing from Pocahontas, Ark., and Blenheim, Ontario. Mezzo Renee Tatum’s Medea shows a vocal and dramatic maturity beyond her years. In the title role, mezzo Cecelia Hall, the winner of COT’s first Brian Dickie Outstanding Young Singer Award, not only has a golden voice but never needs to mug or stomp to portray a young male general.
In a work without baritones, basses or contraltos, Handel gives us more than the usual number of duets and an equally haunting trio. Soprano Deanna Breiwick (Agilea’s confidante Clizia), countertenor David Trudgen (as Clizia’s counterpart Arcano) and countertenor Gerald Thompson (the shaky but ultimately good-hearted and honest King Egeo) not only each sing well but blend divinely.
The orchestra, an augmented version of Garry Clarke’s Chicago-based Baroque Band, acquitted itself gracefully, especially in the score’s many gentle parts. Visiting young harpsichord and theorbo players Leon Schelhase and Michael Leopold were both anchors and drivers of the continuo section. Darrah’s naturalness with the characters is echoed in the simple but evocative set of Francois-Pierre Couture, lighting by Julian Pike and Darrah’s own costumes.