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A Multi-Cultural Spectacle: Handel's 'Teseo'

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Imagine for a moment that, in 17th-century London opera houses, it was customary to start the evening the same way we begin afternoons at the ballpark today -- with the national anthem. In the case of Handel's operas, it might have been tricky to name the right tune.

WOO-1219-Teseo-300-2Handel was nothing if not cosmopolitan. Born in Germany, he had three decades of success in England, as a composer and purveyor of Italian opera -- which was all the rage among London's upper classes. And if a national anthem had been in order on the evening of January 10, 1713, it might have required three different numbers to cover all the bases.

"God Save the Queen" would have been in order, as the premiere took place at the Queen's Theatre. But the opera getting its world premiere, Handel's Teseo, was sung in Italian, so perhaps the Italian anthem would also have had its place. And this time around, the opera had even more complicated roots. It was based on a traditional, French libretto, by Quinault, originally set by Lully in Paris -- a far cry from the Italianate dramas London audiences had come to expect -- so the proceedings could well have started with the "Marseillaise."

Teseo was conceived in the elaborate, five-act form typical of French opera, and the music was also different: The recitatives were more dramatic, and the arias less formal. There were lengthy ballet sequences. And then there was the stagecraft.

In true, French style, Teseo was loaded with spectacle, with audience treated to a variety of impressive special effects. Unfortunately, these often didn't work properly; London's opera houses didn't have the technical prowess of their French counterparts. After one performance, the cast actually posted an apology for effects that failed to function, saying, "The Performers are much concerned that they did not give the Nobility and Gentry all the satisfaction they could have wished."

The statement was spurred by more than just contrition. The production's impresario had absconded with all the cash, leaving the singers without pay. Rather than give up on the show, they agreed to work for a percentage of the gate -- and thus had plenty of incentive to keep the audiences coming back!

Still, when everything did work, it was a sight to behold, with sorcery and spells, magical transformations, fire-breathing monsters and burning palaces, and gods appearing out of thin air -- and the music follows suit. Even today, Teseo is one of Handel's most colorful and purely entertaining operas.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone brings it to us from the International Handel Festival in Göttingen, Germany, where Handel's operas have been receiving first-class productions since 1919. The stars are soprano Susanne Rydén in the title role, soprano Amy Freston as Teseo's beloved, Agilea, and soprano Dominique Labelle as Medea, the vengeful sorceress who tries to tear the lovers apart. The production is led by conductor Nicholas McGegan.