There’s a problem inherent in any staging of a Handel opera for a modern audience – what activity is best suited to the da capo section of an aria? If the work’s a more familiar one, too many extraneous goings-on don’t perhaps distract our attention from the singer who’s taking centre-stage (in the musical, if not always histrionic, sense). If it’s an early, less well-known piece – such as Teseo – then the problem looms large.
William Oldroyd’s revival of James Conway’s production highlights the problem, and doesn’t completely offer a solution. It helps if the period is one with full skirts and flowing cloaks; designer Adam Wiltshire sets his Athenian conflicts in the mid-17th century, paralleling one of those nasty little political spats, such as the Fronde, when a weakened court faced an over-ambitious nobility. But there are too many distracting swirls and dance measures when what we really want to do is to listen to the singers.
These are very good, especially Annabel Mountford who took over the role of the heroine Agilea as part of English Touring Opera’s partnership with the Royal College of Music. If dramatically she was a little subdued as the strong-minded but much afflicted royal ward, she more than made up for it in her fourth act duet with Teseo and the quartet in the fifth act. As her confident Clizia Paula Sides postures just a little too much, though she sings well; one wonders why Arcane (Lina Markeby) was so enthralled.
Medea the sorceress is a marvellous part, full of conflicting passions and nicely balanced between genuine unselfish love and an equally genuine talent for evil. Claire Ormshaw gives us both sides of her tainted coin as she makes use of what for a refugee is a remarkably well-equipped laboratory to take Teseo from Agilea and keep him for herself. The title role is very well sung and acted by Anne Marie Gibbons who produces both the fire and the humanity of a noble hero.
Heroic is not an adjective which one can apply to Egeo, a veritable roi fainéant. The American counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin brings humour to the role as well as a strong voice with distinct baritone underpinning. The ornamentation is throughout well managed and the orchestra never overwhelms the singers, besides providing some decorative obbligato moments. Michael Rosewell conducts with the off-stage chorus furnished by a local choir.
There’s a variant on conventional surtitles for those of us who find such aids helpful. The dialogue of the recitatives and the outline content of the arias and concerted numbers are taken from the original word-book. It works very well, and is much to be preferred to titles which run ahead of what is actually being sung, thus precipitating a too-early laugh or gasp of horror.