Handel’s Teseo brings 2018 London Handel Festival to a close

I was rather surprised to read in the programme that this performance by
David Bates’s La Nuova Musica and soloists from Royal Academy
Opera aimed ‘to recreate the drama in the Perfection that would have been
experienced by the audience in 1713 with scenes, decorations, flights and
machines’. Okay, the columns, stained glass and reredos of St George’s are
not without their architectural drama, but the idea that the sort of stage
effects that Handel’s audiences enjoyed – Medea’s magic transforms a palace
into a desert inhabited by horrid monsters, while she descends from a cloud
in a chariot drawn by fire-breathing dragons – could be accommodated amid
the narrow (and uncomfortable) oak pews and aisles would be stretching
things somewhat.

I guess that this ambition was metaphorical and intended to be interpreted
‘in spirit’. Fortunately, no flames or thunderbolts flashed in the
transepts, though the operations of Westminster Council Refuge Collection
services and a few Harley Davidsons racing down St George’s Street towards
Piccadilly Circus added some rumbles and reverberation to the proceedings.

However, there is sufficient fire in Handel’s setting of Nicola Francesca
Haym’s libretto in five Acts – for the most part, as David Kimbell


was among the first to confirm, a translation of Philippe Quinault’s text for Jean-Baptiste Lully’s ThÈsÈe which was heard in
Paris in 1675 – to keep the passions burning through the unfolding of a
plot in which three couples ties themselves in romantic and political
Gordian knots even more convoluted than the seria norm.

Let’s just say Medea has come to Athens as she expects King Egeo to fulfil
his promise to marry her, so she is not best pleased when she learns that
in fact he’d rather hitch up with Agilea, with whom he is obsessed, but who
herself is not very enamoured of this proposition as she’d rather tie the
knot with Teseo (Theseus, who returns her love, and who is the baby-son
abandoned by Egeo in a far-off land – don’t fret about the reasoning or
logic). Clizia and Arcane, confidants to Agilea and Teseo respectively,
wish everyone would stop fussing so they can get wed, though Arcane is not
averse to his own spot of jealous pique of his own, when he thinks Clizia
has also fallen for Teseo’s charms. The plot is driven by Medea’s
increasingly vengeful jealousy. When sorcery fails to serve up a satisfying
resolution she stoops to an attempted poisoning of Teseo, but in the nick
of time Egeo recognises his long-lost son and dashes the bitter chalice
from his hand. The goddess Minerva intervenes to stop the enraged Medea
from igniting a conflagration. All’s well that ends well.

My (minor) gripes first. The choreography of this performance was
confusing. Though the da capo form predominates, many of the arias are
quite short and there are an unusual number of duets. So, why place two
individual members of a duo-number respectively in front of and behind the
instrumental forces when they are supposed to be speaking/singing to each
other? Why, for example, have Agilea tell Teseo that she longs for the day
when she can ‘clasp you to my breast, O dearest!’ when she’d have to
clamber over twenty instrumentalists to do so?

Then, tempi – which were, as is the way of things these days, fast. Now,
no-one wants a three-hour-plus opera (not least when sitting in these
back-breaking pews) to be dragged out to eternity, but there were moments
here where Bates’s Tigger-ish impetuousness did not serve his soloists – a
superb young cast – as well as more judicious (musical and dramatic) pacing
might have done. And, as I commented in relation to La Nuova Musica’s performance of Purcell’s

Dido and Aeneas

at Wigmore Hall a week ago, Bates’s obsession (not unworthy) with
instrumental detail – at times, here I feared he might slide off the piano
stool as he veered left and right, up and down, circling his hands to
generate vigour (when things were already fizzing along), punching out bass
points – risked making the instrumental parts relentless rather than
rhetorically supportive. In general, it all felt rather bass heavy and
effortful, whereas in fact Handel has done all the work and the music
should simply speak for itself.

That’s not to say that there wasn’t some splendid playing: the strings were
charmingly robust but impressively unified in matters of ensemble and
articulation; oboes were pungent, and Leo Duarte’s duetting the Agilea in
‘M’adora l’idol mio’ (My beloved adores me) almost stole the show,
threatening to outdo the operatic theatricality, as voice and reed chased
each other through Handel’s curlicues, up and down the scales and round the
cadential corners. And, the accompanied recitatives were as startling as,
surely, Handel intended, Medea’s summoning of the ‘Shades’ pierced by
flawlessly tumbling unison strings and heart-churning pointed stabbings.

The RAO soloists made the back-breaking endurance unequivocally worthwhile.
When I heard Ilona Revolskaya assail the flight-paths of the Air Traffic
Controller in Jonathan Dove’s Flight last month – a production
which inaugurated the opening of the Royal Academy of Music’s beautifully
proportioned, acoustically advantageous new Susie Sainsbury Theatre,
designed by Ian Ritchie – I admired the way she prowled along her raised
perch and soared through the stratospheric vocal lines with equal
imperiousness (Opera, May 2018). Here she was a stunning Agilea,
her soprano by turns slicing through the air with ominous power and
precision, and touching the heart with the poignant tones of
self-sacrifice. Revolskaya has the ability to shape a lyrical line more
enchanting than Medea’s magic, and ‘Deh v’aprite, o luci belle’ (Ah, open,
lovely eyes) was beautifully enriched by obbligato recorders (Leo Duarte,
Bethan White) – a wonderful and much needed moment of space and stillness
amid the frantic proceedings, a drop of sweetness to assuage envy’s poison.
‘Amarti sÏ vorrei’ (Yes, I want to love you) was similar enhanced by Alex
McCartney’s expressive theorbo.

I have admired Hannah Poulsom’s performances on several recent occasions,
not least in Surrey Opera’s

The Life to Come

and though we had to wait until Act 2 to hear Medea’s passionate wrath, it
was worth waiting for. The gravity with which Poulsom injected her mezzo –
complemented by secure centring in the recitatives – captured all of the
vengeful Medea’s frustration and anger. The rapid changes of mood proved
more problematic, though, and Poulsom was not always able to marry the top
and bottom of her voice; but, she was undeniably and winningly courageous
and deserving of praise. Medea’s most fiery outbursts may have affected the
intonation, but Poulsom effectively carried the drama, flashing blindingly
at the top, snarling at the bottom, as required. One couldn’t fault her
commitment and if it occasionally felt a bit too premature for her voice,
then perhaps that’s what one-off student performances are for …

As Clizia, Alexandra Oomens’ diction was less clear than her peers, but she
made good use of the rich colours of her mezzo and was very engaging
dramatically: ‘Rispendente, amiche stelle’ (Beam down, friendly stars)
seemed aflame with celestial heat, and her duets with Alexander Simpson’s
Arcane were unfailingly alert and dramatic – and impressively off-score.
Indeed, the precision and coordination of the duo’s cadential trills
threatened to upstage the principals! Simpson’s countertenor occasionally
seemed to lack supporting weight, but his voice is agile and the coloratura
was accurate, especially in ‘BenchÈ tuoni, e l’etra avvampi’ (Although it
may thunder, and the sky become red) in Act 4.

Handel wrote the three male roles for soprano castrato (Teseo), alto
castrato (Egeo), and female alto (Arcane), but here Teseo was taken by mezzo
soprano Olivia Warburton, who characterised the role skilfully, from her
first entrance from the rear of the nave. I was impressed by the way that
Warburton showed appreciation of the way the Handelian rhythms can lighten
the voice and convey heroic optimism and brightness. Moreover, the busy
runs of ‘S’armi il fato, s’armi armore (Let fate take up arms, let love
take up arms) caused no problem; equally, the simple lyricism of ‘Tengo in
pugno l’idol mio’ (I clasp my idol) – noteworthy for some lovely interplay
between solo violin and vocal line – was beguiling.

As Egeo, mezzo soprano Frances Gregory used her firm, rich sound
impressively – always responsive and expressive – to convey regality and
indignation in equal measure (one should note also Rodolfo Richter’s lovely
violin obbligato in Egeo’s aria ‘Ricordati o bella’ (Remember, O fair

Given the ceaselessness of the high voices, it was something of a relief
when baritone Darwin Prakesh’s Sacerdote entered the raised pulpit in the
closing moments, to bring us all down to earth in such warm, consoling and
commanding fashion.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Teseo (London Handel Festival)

La Nuova Musica
: David Bates (conductor/harpsichord)

Teseo – Olivia Warburton, Egeo – Frances Gregory, Agilea – Ilona
Revolskaya, Clizia – Alexandra Oomens, Arcane – Alexander Simpson, Medea –
Hannah Poulsom, Sacerdote – Darwin Prakash.

St George’s, Hanover Square; Saturday 14th April 2018.


See Kimbell, ‘The Libretto of Handel’s Teseo’, Music & Letters, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Oct., 1963), pp.
371-379.wa y

image_description=Teseo: La Nuova Musica, 2018 London Handel Festival, St George’s, Hanover Square, London
product_title=Teseo: La Nuova Musica, 2018 London Handel Festival, St George’s, Hanover Square, London
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Olivia Warburton (Teseo)