Chicago Opera Theater is currently presenting Handel’s Teseo, which concludes their “baroque trilogy devoted to the exploration of operas with Medea as a central character.” Previous installments were Cavalli’s Jason, and Charpentier’s Medea. In the interest of this review, it will suffice to note the work’s central plot is defined by Medea’s (Renée Tatum) desire for Teseo (Ceclia Hall), her jealousy for the love Teseo shares with Agilea (Manuela Bisceglie), and her manipulation of the king Egeo (Gerald Thompson) to attempt to get her way—i.e. marriage with Teseo and disposal of Agilea. Supporting characters include Clizia (Deanna Breiwick) and her lover Arcano (David Trudgen). Those interested in a full synopsis may find it available through the Handel House.
Staging a baroque opera can be a difficult stylistic undertaking for any modern opera company, but particularly a group who takes pride in presenting “timeless opera” with a “modern attitude” (their slogan). There’s a whole host of details to consider: how historically accurate will the production be, which elements will be “updated,” what tempos will be best, do you use modern or period instruments? Musically, Chicago Opera Theater (COT) paired with Baroque Band, a Chicago period-instrument orchestra, and Conductor Michael Beattie (in his COT debut). Baroque Band is a terrific ensemble, though Friday evening they seemed to be just a hair "off" every now and again with some slight unison problems in the strings and a couple of odd squawks from the wind section. Michael Leopold was a standout on theorbo, providing some of the most sensitive and heartfelt musical moments of the evening.
Whilst the music adhered to period style, the set decoration was modern, and beautiful, if a little starkly minimal. Red and orange leaves littered the edges of the set, providing a passionate burst of color to the otherwise neutral set of two grandly oversized tables, chairs (vaguely Louis XIV style), and chandeliers in grays and beige. The leaves also added a foreboding element—decay, which seemed quite effective given the opera’s violence and emphasis on destructive emotions. A damp streak cut across the floor, implying a previous presence of water, or, in moments of dramatic, chiaroscuro lighting design (by Julian Pike), blood. Costumes (by the opera’s producer, James Darrah, with associate designer François-Pierre Couture) seemed to be a evoking an early 20th century period, with a few exceptions for the lead women whose gowns recalled draped Greek statues. These old and new elements blended together quite well and provided effective visual and audio support.
Overall the production was fine. There were no major flaws or awkwardly gapping issues. Each vocalist performed his/her recits and arias with skill. But, therein was the central problem—it was just fine, its full potential glimpsed only in fleeting moments. In short, the production lacked the smolder the libretto needs so desperately to come alive. For example, throughout the production many props were thrown across the stage to accentuate moments of rage, but one never felt the rush of angry energy being generated from actor to audience. It simply seemed like someone tossed something, and we watched.
One of the biggest issues for me were the physical gestures of nearly every member of the cast; they seemed overblown, suitable for, say, Puccini, but terribly awkward and out of place for Handel. Disconnection existed between the intimacy of the period instruments and the flamboyancy of most of the actors’ movements that was distracting and jarring (particularly because Harris Theater allows for a surprisingly detailed view of small movements on stage, even from the back row seats). The moments where I felt genuinely drawn in by sincere emotion were too few. Most of the tempos remained largely the same throughout the entire 2 hours and 45 minutes of action—the musical equivalent of monotone. Together with the general lack of zeal I felt coming from the stage, it gave the impression of watching an exercise rather than participating in a consuming artistic experience.
Ceclia Hall’s portrayal of Teseo was the highlight of the whole affair. She had clearly digested the emotions of her character, made them her own, and offered them to us with tender honesty. Whenever she appeared on stage, she seemed to draw out the best in the other actors. As the character of Teseo appears more frequently in the later portions of the opera, consequently the action on stage actually strengthened as the night progressed. Additionally, the vocal pairing of Hall and Manuela Bisceglie was simply, beautifully, heaven. Their triumphant love duet “Cara, caro, ti dono in pegno il cor” lifted the evening for a few glorious moments to divine heights.
Chicago Opera Theater presents the final performance of Teseo at Harris Theater on May 2nd, 7:30 P.M. Visit their website for more details.