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!