McGegan, Labelle, & Philharmonia's TESEO Has Successful West Coast Performance, Heads East
New York City's early-music scene has fostered a number of fine period-instrument ensembles in the recent past. But for a full-size orchestra of period-instrument specialists who have played together for decades under the direction of a committed and charismatic conductor, New Yorkers need to look west - and may well do so with envy. On Thursday evening the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, led by Nicholas McGegan, gave a performance of Handel's "Teseo" at the Herbst Theater here that confirmed its leading position in the field.
The work itself is very rarely performed, although it contains delectable arias orchestrated with exceptional attention to variety and color. The cast, led by the glowing soprano Dominique Labelle, as the witch Medea, and the outstanding lyric soprano Amanda Forsythe in the title role, also afforded many moments of unalloyed musical pleasure. But for the most part it was the irrepressible positive energy of the orchestra that breathed life into this three-and-a-half-hour performance and made up for the dramatic lulls and occasional moments of stasis.
The production was minimally staged, with singers wearing stylish contemporary evening dress and interacting with unaffected grace on a stage that was empty, save for two stone benches. The orchestra was set up in front of the stage "in the manner of a Baroque jazz band," as Mr. McGegan explained in preconcert remarks, with unimpeded sight lines that allowed the instrumentalists to follow the singers' lines with great flexibility. That matters particularly in this opera, which shows Handel embellishing many arias with finely wrought instrumental solos given over to flutes, trumpets, cello and, most prominently, oboe, played here by the outstanding Marc Schachman.
The plot follows the fortunes of two pairs of Athenian lovers: the dashing military hero Teseo and the incorruptible princess Agilea, and Clizia, Agilea's confidante, and Arcane, adviser to King Egeo. Egeo has designs on Agilea, while the sorceress Medea wants Teseo for herself. After many scenes of jealousy, scheming and an Orpheus-like test in which Agilea has to feign coldness toward Teseo to save him, the couples are united, and Teseo is revealed as Egeo's long-lost son.
In a cast dominated by high voices, the women trumped the countertenors. The fine soprano Valerie Vinzant, stepping in at the last moment for Amy Freston, was luminous as an Agilea who was steadfast without being a drip. Her "Deh! V'aprite," accompanied by a pair of undulating flutes, was exquisitely shaped.
Ms. Forsythe sang the part of Teseo with a vibrant and focused soprano that brought out a likable mixture of military courage and emotional vulnerability in the young hero. Her opening aria, "Quanto ch'a me sian care," was beautifully sung, with a slender, gleaming sound. For the repetition of the opening, the orchestra fell away to leave only the onstage theorbo, played sensitively by David Tayler, to lend chamberlike intimacy to the moment - an effective device used for several da capo arias.
Ms. Labelle's voice, with its great reserves of depth and darkness, was well suited to the now regal, now witchy Medea. In "O stringerò nel sen," one of her "evil" arias, she was not above a little cackle, and she brought out the erotic delight with which Medea imagines her rival's torment.
Céline Ricci delivered a welcome dose of sharpness and precise coloratura to the part of Clizia, a calculating minx who at one point teases poor Arcane by flirting with the theorbist. Arcane was sung by the countertenor Robin Blaze, who rarely lifted the part out of its somewhat pedestrian register, although he rallied for a fine rendition of "Benché Tuoni." The countertenor Drew Minter, a natural actor, brought great dramatic instinct to the role of Egeo, but the sharp discrepancy between his upper and lower register was distracting.
All of the singers seemed at ease, buoyed by the orchestra's attentive playing and the warm sound of the Baroque instruments.