Handel’s Teseo HWV 9 was immensely popular on its premiere, enjoying thirteen performances between January and May 1713, and even surviving theatre manager Owen Swiny stealing the first box office receipts. It tells the story of Teseo (Theseus) who is the son of King Egeo (Aegeus) of Athens, although neither realises this. He fights valiantly for the Greeks and consequently looks set to marry Egeo’s ward, Agilea, while the King marries Medea. Egeo, however, decides that now he has been so victorious his union with a sorceress would be inappropriate, and that he should marry Agilea himself. The younger lovers are mortified and Medea is furious until Egeo suggests that she wed Teseo, who she loves already.
Medea consequently tries to drive a wedge between Agilea and Teseo by telling the former that the latter will die unless she agrees to marry Egeo. Agilea agrees after being subjected to an image of the sleeping hero being menaced by murderous spectres, and then Medea makes Teseo hear Agilea’s voice tearfully declaring that she no longer loves him. However, the sorceress is so moved herself by the scene that she gives way before being consumed by jealousy once more and resolving to take Teseo’s life. There is also a sub-plot concerning Agilea’s companion Clizia and her own lover Arcane, who becomes jealous when he erroneously believes that she loves Teseo.
Things come to a head when Medea, having convinced Egeo that Teseo is a threat to him, persuades the King to put poison in his drink as he and Agilea celebrate their marriage. Before Teseo drinks it, however, Egeo recognises the hero’s sword, realises he is his son, knocks the cup from his hand and blesses his union with Agilea. A furious Medea appears on a flying chariot drawn by dragons, and orders them to set fire to the palace. Minerva, however, intervenes and banishes Medea, leading to general rejoicing.
The programme stated that ‘Tonight’s performance aims to recreate the drama in the Perfection that would have been experienced by the audience in 1713 with scenes, decorations, flights, and machines’. If this seemed a bold claim, as it meant that this concert performance had to generate the same sense of excitement that the original would have achieved through flying dragons, transformation scenes and apparitions, the promise was fulfilled as the playing was electric, demonstrating immense energy and drive. Although La Nuova Musica, conducted from the harpsichord by David Bates, can take the credit for giving such a highly charged performance, it was entirely appropriate for it to do so because the score clearly leant itself to such an approach.
Nevertheless, the music was clearly multi-faceted in its own right and the ensemble responded astutely to its disparate demands. For example, Medea’s arioso ‘Dolce riposo’ contrasted short, strident bow strokes with more flowing wind and string lines. When the sorceress appeared in the final scene, one really felt the flames and fury of the dragons, before the menacing strains gave way to more radiant and sublime music as she was defeated.
The soloists, all of whom are currently studying with Royal Academy Opera, delivered not just accomplished, but truly astounding, performances. First among equals were Patrick Terry in the title role and Meinir Wyn Roberts as Agilea. Terry’s countertenor possessed all of the formal attributes required to generate a strong sound, but it went beyond producing merely that to achieve what can only be described as a dreamy perfection. Roberts was equally impressive as her soprano possessed strength, beauty and edge. Her superb technique ensured that her sound entered a wondrous realm at the top of her register while still maintaining evenness of tone, and was shown to particularly good effect in the exceptionally challenging ‘M’adora l’idol mio’, performed with solo oboe (Leo Duarte).
Frances Gregory as Egeo revealed an extremely sumptuous mezzo-soprano, as did Leila Zanette as Medea who also produced a glistening sound in the upper register that nonetheless still hinted at the character’s malevolence. As Arcane, Alexander Simpson revealed a highly pleasing and focused countertenor, Emilie Cavallo produced an immensely sweet sound as Clizia, while Darwin Prakash’s superb baritone left us lamenting the fact that the part of the Sacerdote is not bigger. Anyone wishing to hear ‘students’ sing may have been left feeling disappointed, because these performances felt professional in every way.
The second performance on 14 March features Olivia Warburton as Teseo, Ilona Revolskaya as Agilea, Alexandra Oomens as Clizia and Hannah Poulsom as Medea.
This performance of Teseo was a part of the London Handel Festival, which continues until 16 April. For details of all events visit the designated website.
For details of all of the Royal Academy of Music’s forthcoming events visit the RAM website.