Friday 13 April 2018

Handel's Teseo at the London Handel Festival

Hippolyte Flandrin (1806-1864): Theseus Recognized by his Father (1832), École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Hippolyte Flandrin (1806-1864): Theseus Recognized by his Father (1832),
École Nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Handel Teseo; Leila Zanetta, Meinir Wyn Roberts, Patrick Terry, La Nuova Musica, David Bates; London Handel Festival at St George's Church, Hanover Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 12 April 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Handel's third London opera, in a finely dramatic concert performance with students from the Royal Academy of Music

Handel's Teseo is a fascinating experiment, the only time the composer moved significantly away from the conventions of Italian opera (until he abandoned it entirely for English oratorio). Based on Quinault's French libretto for Lully, Teseo is in five acts (rather than the usual three) and the convention of the exit aria is entirely avoided, with characters remaining on stage for significant amounts of time. Handel would base other operas, such as Amadigi di Gaula, on French librettos, but never again would he depart so consistently from Italian operatic convention, and in fact, the joy of some of his later operas is the way he plays with the audience's expectations of the form.

Maria Callas as Medea in Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Medea
Maria Callas as Medea in Pier Paolo Pasolini's film Medea
For the final Handel opera at this year's London Handel Festival at St George's Church, Hanover Square on Thursday 12 April 2018, David Bates conducted La Nuova Musica with a cast drawn from the Royal Academy of Music (there were, in fact, two casts, with a second performing on 13 April). We saw Patrick Terry as Teseo, Leila Zanette as Medea, Meinir Wyn Roberts as Agilea, Frances Gregory as Egeo, Alexander Simpson as Arcane, Emilie Cavallo as Clizia and Darwin Prakash as Sacerdote, many of whom had taken part on the recent performances of Jonathan Dove's Flight in the new theatre at the Royal Academy of Music [see my review].

When it was first performed in 1713, Teseo was presented with all sorts of scenic transformations and magical effects. Winton Dean in his book on Handel's Italian operas suggests that the opera may have originally been intended to be even closer to the French model with dancing as well, and it still has the descent of the goddess Minerva at the end for the lieito fine. In concert, we are left to imagine all these, though it was a shame that La Nuova Musica's excellent printed libretto omitted the stage directions.

Whilst the leading role is technically Teseo (who gets most arias) and the heroine is Agilea, it is very much Medea who dominates the action. She is a wonderfully complex creation, the second of Handel's quartet of fascinating sorceresses (Armida in Rinaldo, Medea in Teseo, Melissa in Amadigi di Gaula and Alcina), and it is into this character that Handel breathes life. Medea is unusual in that, unlike most Handel villains, she neither dies nor gets her comeuppance (Armida repents and converts to Christianity, both Melissa and Alcina die). Instead, unrepentant and a bad girl still, Medea has a final dramatic accompagnato, torches everything and then leaves gloriously in a chariot pulled by dragons.

Leila Zanette certainly made the most of her opportunities, singing with vibrant tones and a bravura sense of dramatic emotion she created a stormy character who really did seem to breathe fire. Perhaps some of the passage-work was not entirely clean, but the results were stupendously full of character and really brought Medea's uncertain and contradictory nature alive. Zanette's account of Medea's final aria, 'Moriro' with its cascades of notes (duetting with Leo Duarte's superb oboe), was both moving and thrilling, and her final accompagnato was a tour de force. Perhaps because she is of Italian heritage, alone of the cast Zanette really tried to make something of the words.

As a hero, Teseo is frankly no match for Medea, so not surprisingly Patrick Terry took time to put his stamp on the role. Teseo was written for a soprano castrato and is usually sung by female mezzo-sopranos nowadays (though Franco Fagioli has recorded it). The role clearly lies quite high for Terry, though well within his capability and he threw in the odd high note (a top concert F# I think), but you felt the way he was managing his voice with care. He has a vibrato-led sound which adds a richness to the line. It took him time to move beyond fine technique to create a sense of character, but by his Act Four aria 'Qual tigre o qual Megera' he combined impressive passagework with a vigorous sense of character, and his final duet with Meinir Wyn Roberts' Agilea was a joyful bravura delight.

Agilea is a relatively passive character, but she does ultimately stand up to Medea. Meinir Wyn Roberts, though, sang with such a vibrantly characterful sense of line, that Agilea was positively transformed [Wyn Roberts sang the title role in Royal Academy Opera's 2016 production of Handel's Alcina, see my review]. Occasionally Wyn Roberts passagework was a bit smudgy, but she was always highly expressive. I particularly loved her second aria, duetting with Leo Duarte's oboe, and her Act Three recitative with Leila Zanette's Medea in Act Three fairly crackled.

The secondary couple, Arcane and Clizia, are really there to provide contrast and the subplot of Arcane's jealously never really gets going properly. As Arcane, Alexander Simpson did not really bring out the jealous element enough in the early arias, singing beautifully but without a dangerous edge. Yet in his Act Four aria, which is more martial, he gave us some fabulously characterful singing complete with terrific bravura passagework. As his lover Clizia, Emilie Cavallo sang with a rich, dark soprano voice and created a strong sense of character for Clizia.

Egeo is a tricky role, he is an older man and a king but taken originally by an alto castrato and must be seen to be a potential lover for both Medea and Agilea. Here it was sung by mezzo-soprano Frances Gregory, who has a lovely, well-modulated voice and finely musical technique. In a concert performance, having an older man played by a twenty-something young woman is a big ask, and though Gregory was always a pleasure to listen to she never really gave us a feeling of Egeo's character.

Darwin Prakash was impressively sonorous in the small role of the Sacerdote, who brings news of Minerva's resolution of the conflict at the end.

Teseo has a richly imaginative orchestration, and in many of the arias, Handel uses his forces of oboes, bassoons, strings and continuo (plus occasional flutes, recorders and trumpets) with skill and imagination. David Bates and his forces brought out all these fascinating textures, supporting the voices with a gorgeous tapestry of sound.

This concert performance was a fine achievement from all concerned, and it was lovely to have the chance to hear this fascinating yet rarely performed opera in such an engaging performance.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Handel's Giulio Cesare in Egitto from Early Opera Company at London Handel Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Concrete Dreams (★★★★)  - exhibition review
  • Britten, Bernstein, Moore, Sutherland, Chagall, Piper - Walter Hussey & his commissions (★★★★)  - Book review
  • Shedding light on Claude le Jeune's psalm settings (★★★½) - CD review
  • Journey to Nidaros: Alexander Chapman Campbell (★★★) - CD review
  • Fantasies can be dangerous: Mark-Anthony Turnage's Coraline (★★★) - opera review
  • Competitive edge: Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris and arias from Handel's Semele  (★★★★) - opera review
  • Labour of love: a new musical direction at Finchcocks - interview
  • Spellbinding: Anna Netrebko and Željko Lucic in Verdi's Macbeth - Royal Opera House Live Cinema (★★★★) - opera review
  • From wronged women to pastoral delight: Handel's Italian cantatas at Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Mr Handel's Vauxhall Pleasures at the London Handel Festival (★★★★½) - concert review
  • This brand-new production of Verdi’s Falstaff proves how strong the subject-matter is and how highly entertaining the opera (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Planet Hugill’s roving music correspondent, Tony Cooper, reports on Berlin’s Festtage (★★★★) - concert review
  • Humanity, Energy and Poise: Bach's St John Passion at the Holy Week Festival (★★★★½)   - concert review
  • Home


  1. Dates of performances were 12th and 14th. What planet are you on???

    1. Ha, that's life on Planet Hugill!


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