‘Teseo,’ Philharmonia Baroque, review

On April 12, 2013 |

By Joshua Kosman

One of the miraculous aspects of Handel’s operas is the way even the composer’s less successful efforts are packed tight with hours’ worth of beautiful and psychologically probing music, seemingly drawn from an inexhaustible well of inspiration. “Teseo,” which got a sumptuous performance by Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra on Wednesday night as the final program of their season, is a case in point.

“Teseo” was one of Handel’s earliest operatic efforts for the London stage (the piece was premiered in 1713, making this a nice tercentenary offering), and it doesn’t boast the depth or dramatic riches of, say, “Giulio Cesare” or “Rodelinda.” The libretto, which draws on Greek mythology to set up a silly romantic roundelay involving Theseus and various other members of the Athenian nobility, is rather blocky, and the drama never quite transcends the elementary geometry of its love quadrangle.

But as always with Handel, the score is so replete with musical splendors – sinuous and heartfelt melodies, displays of vocal bravura, instrumental obbligatos artfully designed to match the dramatic situation – that any hesitations immediately fade away. And McGegan is such a long-standing master of this repertoire that the score practically glistens under his fastidious care.

The only disappointment in this performance is that it is practically unstaged – and reading between the lines of the libretto, it becomes clear that “Teseo” probably makes its best impression in a fully theatrical performance.

Aside from the title role, the central antagonist is the sorceress Medea, encountered in the years after her fling with Jason and the infanticides that resulted. She’s still as venomous as ever, and she uses her magical powers more than once to create elaborate stage illusions – an onslaught of demons when she’s angry, an enchanted garden when she’s trying to wax seductive. Those scenes must be transporting when done with full stage effects.

In their absence, we had soprano Dominique Labelle – and as Philharmonia regulars well know, she is sorceress enough. Her Medea was at once vengeful and vulnerable, sung with a combination of limpid vocal tone and rhythmic ferocity.

The rest of the evening, in the Center for the Performing Arts in Atherton, was no less splendid. Soprano Amanda Forsythe was a heroic Theseus, singing in broad, martial cadences that still made room for a show of lovelorn emotion, and studded with superb bursts of precise, seemingly effortless coloratura.

The performance even boasted a little offstage drama, since soprano Amy Freston, who was scheduled to sing the ingenue Agilea, was held up by visa problems. She arrived in time to sing the two final performances, but in the meantime, soprano Valerie Vinzant was hustled into town from Chicago as a late replacement.

And what a replacement! Vinzant, who recently completed an apprenticeship at the Los Angeles Opera, gave an utterly dazzling performance, marked by tonal grace, technical brilliance and clarity of phrasing. Her duet with Forsythe to conclude Act 4 was a knockout display of competitive warbling.