That a major company such as English Touring Opera would consider a season devoted entirely to Handel is a sign of just how far we have come in the past few decades. It was not so very long ago that even the Handelian warhorses – Rodelinda, Giulio Cesare, Orlando – were real rarities on the international opera stage, dusty curiosities dug out of the archives rather than the crowd-pulling classics that they have so swiftly become. Following the lead of Handel champions Glyndebourne and ENO, ETO has been quietly fostering this repertoire over the past few years, and it is five fairly recent revivals from their back-catalogue that make up this autumn's Handelfest.
Of the operas on offer, Teseo is arguably the least familiar to audiences. Rarely performed, it dates from Handel's earliest London period – only his second opera to be staged after his arrival in the capital. While its plot and melodic language are conventional enough, its structure – both in dramatic and musical terms – is anything but. In place of the traditional three acts we instead have an opera divided into five shorter acts, creating a sense of dramatic impulsion that while it never attains the mature development or reflection of an Alcina nevertheless compensates with tremendous youthful energy. The frequently curtailed (or even disregarded) da capo form of many of the arias also adds to this directionality, as does the frequent abandoning of the post-aria exit convention, which allows characters to remain on stage and thus keeps the drama moving with unusual fluidity.
The plot however is classic Handel, complete with the requisite number of mistaken identities, poisoned cups and love triangles. At its core we have the four lovers (or would-be lovers): Egeus, king of the Athenians, Theseus his general (and long-lost son), Agilea, a beautiful foreigner at the court, and Medea, a volatile enchantress. Both woman are in love with the gallant Theseus; he loves Agilea, but risks the anger of the king, who also loves her. Medea, scorned in favour of her rival, plots vengeance, hoping to murder Theseus and destroy the city. Love – needless to say – eventually triumphs, and peace and order is restored to Athens.
Set in Carolinian England during the civil war, James Conway's production (directed here by William Oldroyd) looks like a series of moving Vermeer paintings. Cleverly lit by Aideen Malone, every ruffle and flounce creates a sense of movement and drama, occupying the eye and drawing it away from the functional simplicity of the set itself. This sense of period charm and intimacy was further fostered by the space of the Britten Theatre itself – perfectly sized for this sort of chamber drama it lent real warmth and immediacy to proceedings. Another inspired touch was the 'authentick' surtitles, which rather than render every word instead offered summaries of each aria in language appropriate to the period. Often raising a smile we were treated to such descriptive gems as: 'She is afraid to put too great a confidence in him considering the probability of inconstancy.'
With conductor Michael Roswell at the helm, ETO's period orchestra provided an understated and immensely stylish reading of this most tuneful of scores. Overflowing with some of Handel's loveliest, but not perhaps most substantial of melodies, the opera lives or dies in the clearly articulated moods of each section, at times swooningly languorous, and at others crisp and matter-of-fact. Of particular joy were the woodwind, with some lovely moments for obbligato oboe and some real textural colour from the bassoons.
Even allowing for Handel's preference for upper voices Teseo is still almost startlingly unbalanced in terms of vocal distribution. Its cast feature two soprano, two mezzo and two alto roles, without even a token bass for relief. Such closely-set forces could so easily have rendered the result monotonous, but it speaks to the inventiveness and variety of Handel's writing that this really isn't the case. Egeo's pompously florid outbursts are clearly distinct from Theseus' heartfelt nobility, and Medea's dynamic vocal athleticism entirely in contrast to Agilea's elegant melodic restraint, anticipating the increasing melodic sophistication of the composer's later works.
Vocally the cast were almost universally strong. The multi-faceted Claire Booth gave a pleasing performance as Agilea (something of a thanklessly passive role), delighting particularly in the rare moments of coloratura that showed off her upper register – the real gem of her voice. The part however lacks the technical meat of Medea, a role that Claire Ormshaw threw herself into with complete vocal and dramatic conviction. Giving perhaps the sexiest rendition of 'Dolce riposa' that I've ever heard, she moved from caressing seduction to fiery rage almost without pause, and left the audience wishing that the bad girl could get her man for a change. Of particular delight were the dramatic outbursts in the final acts (clearly prefiguring the incredible arioso writing in Alcina), which brought a genuine sense of menace to Handel's rather fairytale world.
Anne Marie Gibbons' Teseo was beautifully, if carefully, sung, its restraint following the patented Sarah Connolly approach to trousers roles. While the musical effect was lovely, I did find myself craving a little more abandon from this youthful war-hero than was on offer. Veteran counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin in the other alto role of Egeus sadly proved the evening's only disappointment. Never settling into his tempi (and rushing quite dramatically on several occasions) he seemed a little outfaced by the vocal demands of the role, and his customary clarity and beauty of tone was replaced with a rather unfocused sound. His dramatic characterisation however did work well, bringing a fussy pomposity and vulnerability to a role that can too often appear rather two-dimensional. Paula Sides and Lina Markeby both sang well as secondary lovers Clizia and Arcane, and the decision to make the rather stiffly spare-partish Arcane into a Puritan was inspired.
This is an affectionate and traditional reading of Handel's youthful gem of an opera that highlights its good-humoured elegance. Simply not strong enough to withstand too much by way of aggressive directorial reading, in the hands of ETO Teseo gives of its absolute light-hearted best, and as a rare window into the work of the less experienced London Handel is well worth a look.