As almost the final hurrah in a year which has seen much celebration of Handel’s output, English Touring Opera has weighed in with Handelfest, a substantial offering of five operas from his London years.
Impressive even by ETO’s usual high standards, presenting Alcina, Ariodante, Flavio, Teseo and Tolomeo in six venues in six weeks is a real touring extravaganza.
Adam Wiltshire’s sparse set gives the impression of a corner of a white-washed Dutch church, with only the different positions of a large revolving wooden screen to demarcate the various scenes and settings, and provided the singers with limited room in which to move. While praiseworthy for its economy (and portability an important consideration for ETO), the set failed to provide a visual spectacle to enhance the largely static and gesture-based direction of James Conway’s production (here under revival director William Oldroyd).
The plot of Teseo is laden with heroism and sorcery, its inspiration drawn from the rich story-telling of Ovid and Plutarch, and Handel’s audience in 1713 would have been treated to a dazzling visual display. There were some ingenious touches in the ETO production notably, the veiled appearance of the sorceress Medea’s lair behind a fabric screen at the start of Act IV, representing her omniscient power over the rest of the characters but on the whole it failed to inspire.
The outstanding performer on the night was Claire Booth in the role of Agilea, Teseo’s beloved her bright and full singing captured perfectly each of the moods that her character endured, and was effortlessly elegant throughout. She was also the best actor of the cast, alternately flattered and distressed at the advances of Egeo, loving and playful with Teseo, and utterly terrified when in the clutches of Medea.
Claire Ormshaw as Medea was a scene-stealer with her every action and phrase, whether seductively beguiling or darkly menacing. If there were moments when, in her rage, her singing came off the voice, these only served to intensify the fury of her machinations against all and sundry from her first aria, sung perched above the stage, to her final curses, her sorceress clearly held the other characters in thrall.
Anne Marie Gibbons’ Teseo was solidly sung, if prone to a touch of shrillness in the higher register, and she and Booth made a splendid vocal pairing. However, her acting was wooden and made it hard to believe that this was the legendary Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur (in another story Harrison Birtwistle, anyone?), whose triumphant entry from the battlefield in Act II was acclaimed by a rousing chorus of Athenian soldiers.
Derek Lee Ragin, in the role of Egeo, Teseo’s king and father, brought to the production the ease on stage and vocal presence of a Handelian veteran (he has sung the role on CD), though seemed to take a while to warm up and get into character after a somewhat insipid display before the interval, he launched into the second half with an explosive revenge aria, and thereafter sang and acted like the king he was portraying.
The orchestra, conducted by Michael Rosewell (ETO’s Music Director and Director of Opera at the RCM) were largely on good form, some wayward woodwind solos aside, although some slightly sluggish tempi and the drawn-out rallentandi at the end of most arias made the first half in particular rather heavy going. Particular mention should go to Joseph McHardy, whose harpsichord playing was both deftly sensitive to the singers’ recitatives (which were, on the whole, flexibly and clearly sung) and wonderfully inventive, especially during Medea’s fantastical outbursts.
This Teseo was a solid start to Handelfest, minor quibbles notwithstanding, and on this showing, audiences up and down the country are in for a Handelian treat full marks to ETO for such a worthy venture.