Teseo is, structurally, one of Handel's most fascinating operas. The libretto is based on that of Quinault and Lully's Thésée and Handel and his librettist kept the five-act structure. It may be that they intended to incorporate more of the danced divertissements which were an important part of Lully's operas. But the opera, as composed, did not include these for whatever reason. But Teseo still has something of a French feel to it as, not only is it in five acts, but the disposition of arias does not correspond to Italian practice. In Teseo the characters do not usually have exit arias, in fact Medea spends quite a lot of time on the stage in a way which would be unusual in Italian opera.
Handel seems to have had a soft spot for magic operas with ill-tempered and tempestuous sorceresses, Armida (Rinaldo), Alcina as well as Medea in Teseo. In fact Medea is unusual in that she departs the opera in the last Act in a welter of flames, completely unrepentant, rather than either conveniently dying or repenting in time for the final coro.
This new recording is based on live performances at Stuttgart's Staatsoper in May 2009. The CD booklet includes colour pictures from the production, which was determinedly modern dress. But though the opera was accompanied by the modern instrument Staatsorchester Stuttgart under Konrad Junghänel, the performance style includes plenty of period style. The requirements of contemporary opera production are probably reflected in the fact that all three of the leading male characters are played by counter-tenors, whereas Handel used two castratos and a contralto.
It is with the counter-tenors that this recording seems to be weakest. Kai Wessel as King Egeo is rather hooty and chesty at first, though possessed of a fine technique, but his tone quality improves by the time we get to the final act. Similarly I found Matthias Rexroth's Arcane somewhat blowsy of tone. For Act 1 of the opera, neither Medea nor Teseo appears, so it is with these other characters that the task of holding our attention resides. In fact, though I was less than enamoured of their vocal qualities, both Wessel and Rexroth turn in superb dramatic performances and, as I have said, Wessel's technique is just fine.
When it comes to the women in Act 1, Olga Poylyakova's Clizia is fine if a little under-stated. But Jutta Böhnert's Agilea is delightful. She has an attractive, clear bright voice, at first a little tight at the top but she relaxes during the performance. Throughout the opera, Böhnert is one of the high points.
But it is Medea that we are all waiting for. Any performance of Teseo stands or falls by the account of the tempestuous title role. Helene Schneiderman is no disappointment - she has the temperament to encompass the role. She is not frightened of using a somewhat resinous tone where necessary, but can also sound fascinating and charming; you understand the character's attraction.
In the title role, Franco Fagioli has a rich, vibrato-laden voice which, ironically, sounds rather mezzo-soprano like. When singing lyrical passages, his voice has attractive qualities, but frankly he fails in the faster passagework where he can sound effortful and his vibrato conflicts with the faster passages. In fact, most of the cast has trouble with their passagework at one time or another. Notwithstanding these technical limitations, many of the singers include over-elaborate cadenzas and radically recompose the da capos.
I must admit that, from what I have written so far, you are probably thinking of giving this set a miss. If you do so, then you will be missing a rather terrific performance. True, the cast is a bit mixed and there are not many great voices on display. But they take their places in a live performance, and this shows. You can sense that a drama is unfolding and their account of the opera is vividly involving, even if you are not following the libretto. The performance is anchored by Schneiderman's terrific Medea, but all the singers give lively and dramatic performances. The recitatives in particular really sound as if something is happening.
The soloists are finely accompanied by the Staatsorchester Stuttgart, who are crisp and lively and nicely off the string; thought has obviously gone into the performance style of the piece.
The CD booklet includes the full libretto in English, Italian, German and French along with articles on the opera pictures of the original state production.
This is a fine record of what was obviously a memorable occasion. Other recordings of the opera are technically superior, and I remain rather fond of Marc Minkowski's account with Della Jones's rather over the top Medea. But this disc makes a fine companion to this, one which reflects the virtues of recording live performances.