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Impressively Balanced

ROBERT HUGILL experiences
Handel's opera 'Teseo'


Teseo was the third opera which Handel wrote for London. The previous two, Rinaldo and Il Pastor Fido, were more in the nature of assemblages of existing music. Whereas Teseo was the first completely custom built opera Handel wrote for London.

The opera was dedicated to Handel's patron, the Earl of Burlington. Whether it was Burlington's influence, or the ideas of Handel or his librettist Nicola Haym, Teseo is an attempt to merge the French and Italian operatic traditions. The libretto is based on one of Lully's operas. It preserves the French five acts and the layout of arias. So there are no exit arias, characters often sing one aria after another, and they are often shorter than full scale Italian opera seria. The result seems to have challenged Handel to produce a score of great richness -- virtuoso oboe parts, divided violas and bassoons, some fabulous music and a superbly crafted dramatic role for the sorceress Medea. But the experiment was never repeated. Next time Handel mined French opera, for Amadis di Gaula, the Italian librettist produced a traditional three act opera seria, complete with exit arias.

Teseo is a rather daring choice for a touring opera company. It requires six strong singers and the libretto calls for many magical effects. But English Touring Opera has dared, and the results are very satisfactory. The production débuted in London in October and we caught it on Saturday 27 October 2007 at the Cambridge Arts Theatre.

Director James Conway and designer Adam Wiltshire set the piece in the late 17th century. The permanent set was a space reminiscent of one of the Dutch seventeenth century church interiors, with just a wooden screen breaking up the space. Costumes were similarly in period with King Egeo (Derek Lee Ragin) in a full bottom wig a la William III and Clizia (Helen Withers) looking like Vermeer's girl in a pearl earring.

To succeed, such operas need strong singers and English Touring Opera assembled a fine, experienced cast. The Athenian General, Teseo, was sung by Valerie Kumar, Juilliard trained and with a strong list of American credits behind her. Teseo's beloved, Agilea, was due to be sung by Gail Pearson but illness meant her place was taken by Lorina Gore. Derek Lee Ragin is a distinguished countertenor with a strong Handelian background and he made a welcome appearance as Agilea's guardian Egeo. The sorceress Medea, who is betrothed to Egeo, was played by Jeni Bern. The cast was completed with Clizia (Helen Withers), who is Agilea's companion, and Arcane (Lina Markeby) who is in love with Clizia.

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Copyright © 1 November 2007 Robert Hugill, London UK


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