Cher Public

Practical magic

Notable purveyor of mayhem and infanticide Medea has lately been missing from the local operatic scene, but Sunday afternoon sections of the recently renovated Alice Tully Hall were singed by Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle’s blazing incarnation of the Greek sorceress during a concert performance of Handel’s neglected early opera Teseo by the Philharmonia Baroque given during its second visit this summer to the Mostly Mozart Festival. 

While it may be difficult to imagine an opera featuring Medea where she’s not the title character, there are a few including Cavalli’s greatest hit Giasone,  Steffani’s Le Rivali concordi, and Thesée, Lully’s tragédie lyrique which one of Handel’s favorite librettists Nicola Hyam adapted in 1713 as a follow-up to Rinaldo, the break-out hit of London’s 1711 season. Like Medea, that opera’s anti-heroine Armida was also a love-sick sorceress, an archetype which would again serve Handel well two years later for Amadigi’s Melissa. Twenty years would elapse before he returned to it for one of his most fascinating creations–Alcina.

Along with having such a compelling central figure (here featured post-Jason), Teseo contains so many ravishing gems that I suspect many came away from Sunday’s performance scratching their heads wondering why they had never heard the opera before. Conductor Nicholas McGegan long has been one of its proponents and this Philharmonia Baroque semi-staging began as a full production at the 2011 Göttingen Handel Festival, of which until recently McGegan was artistic director.

Based on the broadcast I heard, he was right to replace the disastrous soprano who took the title role in Göttingen but the five other principals were reunited last year, with soprano Amanda Forsythe as Teseo, for a series at the Phiharmonia Baroque’s home theaters in California and again this summer at Tanglewood and Mostly Mozart. This long run clearly showed in the singers’s confident brio and their enviable rapport with McGegan’s spiffy period-instrument orchestra which has gone from strength to strength this summer following its splendid run (along with its winning chorus) accompanying Mark Morris’s radiant bucolic setting of Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Koch Theater a few weeks ago.

In fact McGegan’s advocacy of Teseo goes back even farther: at the 1985 Boston Early Music Festival he conducted a lavish period staging which was revived later that summer at the much-missed PepsiCo Summerfare at SUNY Purchase. I was lucky enough to see it there, along with other two Handel shows: Peter Sellars’s life-changing Giulio Cesare and Andrew Porter’s shockingly dreary Tamerlano (enlivened only by the memorable singing of Lillian Watson and Judith Malafronte as its ill-fated lovers).

I had never heard a note of Teseo before that afternoon and vividly recall being knocked over by the richness of its orchestral writing, the impossibly florid arias and duets, and the bravery of a cast challenged (and sometimes defeated) by those great difficulties. That production featured three sopranos and three countertenors, as the sole low solo voice appears (as the deus ex machina) only moments before the final coro.

To my amazement one of the cast members of that Summerfare staging reappeared for this Sunday’s performance–29 years later! No longer the young lover Arcane, countertenor Drew Minter made an indelibly campy entrance as King Egeo scheming to extricate himself from his engagement to Medea (who after all did help him win the recent war) so he can marry the comely young Agilea who is, in any case, bound to be less of a handful than the combustible Greek. Not having heard Minter live for 22(!) years, I was pleased to discover he retains an impressive amount of voice. He marshalled it stylishly with able coloratura although the middle now can sound somewhat scratchy and hollow.

The afternoon’s other countertenor, England’s Robin Blaze in Minter’s old role of Arcane, has never been a favorite; on recordings his voice can take on an unpleasant sour edge. Heard live, that was somewhat mitigated and his hooty singing mellowed although his opaque Italian remained a trial. As his enthusiastically flirtatious lover Clizia, Franco-Italian Céline Ricci sang with a surprisingly dark, covered soprano that still made a strong case for her character’s occasionally pedestrian music.

Amy Freston as the put-upon Agilea proved puzzling: why has this exceedingly lovely English soprano been stuck toiling in smallish roles at minor UK organizations when she’s capable of such a fine portrayal of this demanding Handel role? Often these prima donna parts are the hardest to cast, and yet here was someone with a clear, secure instrument capable of beautifully spinning out the breathtaking lines of “Deh! V’aprite, oh luci belle” as well as reveling in the fiendish “M’adora l’idol mio” where the usually immaculate oboe of Marc Schachman momentarily faltered but Freston never did.

A fixture of Boston’s early music scene, Forsythe sings too rarely in New York so it was a joy to encounter her sweetly cool, yet agile soprano in Teseo’s occasionally less-than-inspired music. While clad in the obligatory “masculine” pants-suit (hers was blindingly cream-colored), she didn’t convince as the heroic warrior but then Handel isn’t much help. Perhaps her voice was just too feminine, too similar to Freston’s. But all was forgiven when they joined beguilingly in one of the score’s irresistible high points, the gloriously erotic, dizzyingly florid duet of reconciliation that closes the fourth act.

Despite all their best efforts, no one had a chance on that stage opposite Labelle on her best form as one of Handel’s most vivid and dazzling creations. First attracting attention as Donna Anna in Sellars’s “Spanish Harlem” Don Giovanni, she has worked often as a concert singer during her long career. But the soprano affirmed her substantial dramatic chops in a commanding performance of Gluck’s Armide when Opera Lafayette visited the Rose Theatre several years ago.

However, that evening didn’t prepare me for the tour-de-force she made of Medea; our initial glimpse came in the serene “Dolce riposo” where the restless virago relishes a rare quiet moment reflecting on the fickleness of love. However, after that oasis of calm, Labelle ratcheted herself into a steady fury over Teseo’s rejection—we got denunciations furiously spewed and evil spells cast, all to some of Handel’s most inventive—and challenging–early writing for soprano.

Although Labelle very occasionally slipped into off-putting straight tone, more often she sang with shining force and sharp attack, impressively flying up and down the scale, pungently spitting out Haym’s text with relish. For my taste, the uncredited staging too often went for laughs and Labelle inserted the occasional, unnecessary cackle to convey her evil ways.

But her finest moment came in Medea’s immense fifth-act imprecation “Moriró, ma vendicata” where she simply poured out golden tone infused with flashing anger and pain. Although I haven’t heard it, she appears as Armida in a live recording of Rinaldo made with McGegan at Göttingen—so clearly these 18th century sorceresses who are unlucky-in-love fit her like a glove. A Labelle Alcina is now most definitely in order!

So Teseo’s luck seems to have been changing recently. In addition to the McGegan-led performances, Federico Maria Sardelli conducted it at this summer’s Beaune Festival. The broadcast revealed a badly cut edition but featured a remarkable Medea by the young French mezzo Gaêlle Arquez who had also sung the opera last year in Frankfurt. I heard a superb concert version in Paris in 2011 conducted by Patrick Cohên-Akenine, two excerpts from which I’ve included in this review.

Chicago Opera Theater staged it in 2012, while Oper Stuttgart revived it in 2009 in a production conducted by Konrad Junghänel and subsequently released on CD. A wildly uneven cast makes it a questionable purchase, but it does have the bravura Teseo of countertenor Franco Fagioli.

Three of Medea’s arias are featured on Joyce DiDonato’s Furore CD, which might explain how one got shipwrecked on the MET’s The Enchanted Island where “Moriró, ma vendicata” got the “benefit” of some of Jeremy Sams’s most inane lyrics.

Philharmonia Baroque has just released a single CD of highlights but I hesitate to recommend it. The singing and playing, while fine, don’t quite match Sunday’s performance, the sound quality of the live recording is adequate at best and the choice of music included (or omitted) is often puzzling.

For anyone wanting to investigate this still too little-known gem, Marc Minkowski’s 1992 recording remains the essential choice, now inexpensively boxed with two other appealing early-Handel works by Minkowski. This Teseo not only features rare recorded appearances by the fine American countertenors Derek Lee Ragin and Jeffrey Gall, but its lovers, Julia Gooding and Eirian James, are very well-matched. And, best of all, is the unmissable hell-for-leather Medea of Della Jones!

  • UpB7

    That was a very well-written and satisfying article. I also enjoyed reading about Dominique Labelle. Seeing her photo was a pleasant surprise. I recognized her and remembered her. Five years ago, I purchased the video of Sellars’ production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, and Labelle’s Donna Anna is still one of my favorite Donna Annas.
    Did Dominique Labelle take part in one of the Met’s National Council Auditions 25 to 30 years ago? It is something that I seem to vaguely remember reading about a while back. Since then, did the Met not want to hire her? If yes, than that was a loss for the East Coast audience. Or did she not want to perform at the Met?

    By the way, I remember hearing Labelle over the internet radio -- as the soprano soloist in Handel’s Messiah several years ago, simulcast from the Proms. She gave a very fine performance there as well.

    • steveac10

      She was a finalist in the late 80’s. Her focus has always been 18th century music, and then primarily in concert -- so the Met would not be a great fit. And frankly, back the auditions were little more than a farm system for the young artist program. That was also an era when the Met was home to a huge number of sopranos on the roster to cast the Mozart performances in the house. She’s obviously had a very successful career -- so it’s worked well for her.

  • DeepSouthSenior

    Thank you for the excellent review! It sent me scurrying back to my Handel opera and oratorio CD shelves, which I’ve neglected far too long.

    Of the three early-Handel works in the current inexpensive boxed set, I have only a highlights disc of the Minkowski “Teseo” on Erato (70:35).

    As for the other two works in the current six-disc set, I have “Il Trionfo del Tempe e del Disanganno” in its expanded 1757 English form as “The Triumph of Time and Truth.” This is a 1982 Hyperion recording conducted by Denys Darlow with Gillian Fisher, Emma Kirkby, Charles Brett, Ian Partridge, and Stephen Varcoe. Blast from the past, indeed!

    My real treasure, however, is the original issue of the third work in the current boxed set, Minkowski’s “Amadigi Di Gaula” on Erato. I remember purchasing this mainly for the young Natalie Stutzmann’s subterranean contralto. (Remember back in the 1990’s when RCA was marketing Stutzmann as a sort of “glamor girl”?) The booklet for “Amadigi” is unusual in that it includes a photocopy of the libretto printed in 1715, with Italian text and English translation in parallel columns. French and German translations are on the facing page in modern typeset.

    I went on a binge, c. 1995-2005, collecting every Handel vocal, opera, and oratorio recording I could find (and afford). Back then, I could almost keep up with the pace of new releases. I gave up about ten years ago, with only occasional purchases since then. Keeping abreast of Handel recordings today is almost a full-time task, which is good news all around, unless you’re on a budget.

  • Will

    One note to the very fine review of Teseo: Medea was decidedly NOT Greek. She was a princess of Colchis, an
    independent kingdom on the east coast of the Black Sea for the six centuries BC. One of the many reasons Creon and his subjects hated her was her foreign origin and customs.

    As for the Golden Fleece, a couple of sources speculate that it refers to the local practice of securing a fleece on the bed of fast, shallow streams coming down from the mountains--the fleece would snag gold nuggets scoured out of the earth upstream.

  • Camille

    “Drew Minter”!!!! Mirabile dictu!!!!

    Sorry to have missed it, but this review, as always from the estimable Sig.r. DeCaffarrelli, is fine compensation.

    Glad to know that Dominique Labelle is still ridin’ that pony.

    • ML

      Then there is the great — and funny — Dominique Visse, who sang vividly as a satyr (Satirino) in “La Calisto” this year but was first heard in Les arts florissants’ recording of “Les arts florissants” back in 1981.

  • parpignol

    nice review of a wonderful performance; I was struck by how effectively McGegan’s light touch allowed this to work as comedy, something I would never have imagined from reading Winton Dean (my only previous encounter with Teseo); am I right in remembering that BOTH Minter and Labelle were singing Handel in Boston in the late 1980s? is this to be expected, this kind of longevity in this sort of repertory? and young Freston was splendid!

  • Buster

    How were the Ewoks?

  • La marquise de Merteuil

    Teseo is in my fav Handel opera. Startling music a shame it is not done more. Also, like Amadigi, the only other Handel opera which only uses high voices! (Minerva was transposed down from Sop to bass later on? Not sure)

    • DeepSouthSenior

      With Natalie Stutzmann as Amadigi, it’s difficult to think of the cast as only “high voices.” Years ago, a reviewer described her voice as “chocolate and mahogany.” Her 1992 album of “Handel Opera Arias” with Roy Goodman and The Hanover Band is one of my all-time favourite CD’s.

      • Hippolyte

        Stutzmann has a new Handel CD called “Heroes from the Shadows” coming out this fall from Erato. She sings as well as conducts her orchestra Orfeo 55.

        • DeepSouthSenior

          Thank you! I just placed a pre-order at Amazon.

          From amazon.com:

          “In 2009, contralto and conductor Nathalie Stutzmann founded her own chamber orchestra, Orfeo 55, with which she tours extensively and partners her on this new release. The orchestra, which performs on both baroque and modern instruments, performs not only music from the baroque period, but also works by composers in the 20th century such as Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg. This album focuses on Handel’s contralto arias: music from some of his best-loved operas, but rarely heard independently of full performances. With this release Nathalie Stutzmann gives light to these heroes usually in the shadows, giving these characters and this wonderful music a new perspective -- making them the stars of this album.”

  • Feldmarschallin

    In that picture she looks like a young Judy Densch.

  • ML

    Thanks, Decaf. There is also an Arthaus DVD made in Potsdam in 2004, conducted by Katschner. And one Frankfurt performance from last year, conducted by Venanzoni, is sold by House of Opera.

  • OpinionatedNeophyte

    Given Decaffarelli’s description of Labelle’s fire and commitment, I began to wonder if this lady had shown up on stage:

  • Perles75

    Speaking about Medeas, I love very much the interpretation of Riccarda Wesseling in the only DVD recording of Teseo. Production not particularly remarkable (with a sopranist in the title role -- Laszczkowski is an… acquired taste, let’s say), but with Wesseling owns the stage in the part (with an excellent italian pronunciation in addition). The Agilea (Rostorf-Zamir) is not half bad either.