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

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Audio SelectionsThe StoryWho's Who

WOO-1219-Teseo-300The action takes place in mythical Athens, and like the stories of many Baroque operas, it gets complicated enough that it helps to have a rundown of the main characters. The title character, Teseo, is a war hero, fighting with the army of Athens. He's also in love, with the young Athenian noblewoman, Agilea. Teseo's commander is Egeo, the King of Athens. Egeo is set to marry Medea, a princess who also happens to be a legendary sorceress. And there's one more loving couple: Clizia, Agilea's confidante, and Arcane, an aide to the king.

The story also has an important twist. Teseo is actually the long lost son of the king, Egeo, who sent Teseo away for safekeeping many years ago. Now that Teseo is back, nobody seems to know who he really is -- including Teseo himself.

As ACT ONE begins, Agilea is in the temple of Minerva with her confidante Clizia, and they’re both worried about Teseo, who is off at war. Arcane soon joins them. He wants to stay and protect Clizia, but -- to reassure Agilea -- Clizia orders Arcane to join the battle and keep track of Teseo.

Eventually, the Athenians are victorious, and Teseo is acclaimed as the hero of the battle. This makes the king so happy that he decides to reveal his true feelings. He's never been committed to his upcoming marriage to Medea. In fact, he's always been in love with Agilea. He'd prefer to marry her, and now he tells her so. Agilea tries to dissuade him, saying Medea will be furious, but Egeo won't listen. So as the first act ends, Agilea reflects on her love for Teseo, and wonders if the two will ever be together.

In ACT TWO the sorceress Medea has just learned that King Egeo has decided not to marry her, after all. Instead, he wants to marry his true love, Agilea. Medea is furious, and that's bad news for the people around her. After all, this is the woman who, in an earlier part of her legend, earned her reputation by burning her own children alive when the man she loved betrayed her.

WOO-1219-Teseo-300-2But for the moment, after an initial outburst, she stays fairly calm. She tells Egeo that if he won't marry her, she wants Teseo instead -- and the king seems relieved that she's found someone else. But her contentment doesn't last long.

First, the king's aide Arcane tells Egeo that he'd better look out for Teseo. His victory in the battle has made Teseo wildly popular, and the army is acclaiming him as their new leader.

With Teseo on his way to meet with Egeo, Medea heads him off, to warn him of the king's concerns. But in the process, Teseo unwittingly reveals his love for Agilea. This is too much for Medea, and as Act Two ends she's in a murderous rage -- vowing to invent "new tortures" for the "perfidious lovers" around her.

And in ACT THREE, that's exactly what she does. The act begins with a tender scene for one pair of those lovers, Clizia and Arcane. Then Teseo visits Agilea. The two both say they'd rather die than be separated. That would be just fine with Medea.

She confronts Agilea, who refuses to renounce Teseo. Medea has had enough. She invokes her magic, and the scene suddenly changes to a horrible desert, filled with terrifying spirits and monsters. One of the spirits attacks Clizia, and another one steals Arcane's sword as he tries to defend her. Then a host of spirits seize Agilea and carry her away, as Medea ends the act with a triumphant aria. Urging the spirits on, she sings, "hissing and howling, strike down the rival who mocked me … Her torment brings pleasure to my heart."

WOO-1219-Teseo-300-3As ACT FOUR opens, Arcane goes to Egeo and tells him what Medea has been up to. After all, it was Egeo who started the whole mess by refusing to marry Medea, having fallen for Agilea. In a rage, Egeo vows to greet Medea with "slaughter and death."

Meanwhile, Medea once again confronts Agilea, who still refuses to give up her love for Teseo. Hearing that, Medea conjures up more of her fearsome magic. A sleeping Teseo is ushered in by a group of frightening ghosts. Then, Medea calls on a band of knife-wielding Furies, and threatens to have Teseo killed.

All this is finally too much for Agilea. She gives in, and says Medea can have Teseo, after all. But that's not good enough for Medea. She insists that Agilea must reject Teseo to his face, to make sure he doesn't harbor any feelings for her -- and then, to make doubly sure she's off the market, Agilea must marry Egeo.

Agilea agrees, but her heart isn't in it, and Teseo senses this. He tells Medea that he'd rather die than be separated from Agilea. And finally, Medea relents. She agrees to the union of Teseo and Agilea, and the lovers are together as Act Four ends.

But their happiness doesn't last for long, and neither do Medea's good wishes. At the top of ACT FIVE, she's again in a jealous fury. She decides that if Teseo is willing to die, that's fine with her -- and she knows just how to do it.

As it turns out, Medea has caught on to the opera's big secret: that Teseo is actually the long lost son of King Egeo, the son who was sent away for safekeeping as a boy. But father and son haven't figured this out yet. So Medea reminds Egeo that his army has pledged its loyalty to Teseo, who now poses a threat to the throne, and that Teseo is also his rival for Agilea's love. To solve these problems, Medea hands Egeo a cup of poison, suggesting that he slip it to Teseo. Egeo agrees.

When the time comes, Egeo slyly proposes that Teseo should succeed him, and offers a toast to seal the deal, handing Teseo the poison. But as Teseo accepts it, he also raises his sword as a symbol of victory, and Egeo recognizes that sword. It's the one he gave his son when they parted all those years before. Finally, Egeo realizes who Teseo really is, and he quickly knocks the poison from Teseo's hand.

Father and son are joyfully reunited. And there's more good news for Teseo. Egeo is still in love with Agilea, but he decides that marrying his own son's girlfriend would be going too far. So he releases her, and blesses her marriage to Teseo, leaving everyone happy as the opera ends.