A Medea Trilogy
by Chicago Opera Theater
On Sunday past I attended a wonderful production of George Frideric Handel's early (1713) opera Teseo (Theseus) produced by Chicago Opera Theater and directed by James Darrah. Teseo was one of Handel's early successes as he began his career as the most popular composer in England during the eighteenth century.
Last year Chicago Opera Theater presented the Chicago premiere production of Médée by Marc-Antoine Charpentiere. The opera was the middle part of a three-year chronological trilogy of works based on the ancient Greek story of Medea. The began the previous year when COT experienced a huge success with Cavallli’s 1649 Venetian Giasone (Jason). Paring the work by an hour (basically by cutting the prologue required of operas by French king Louis XIV and the lighter divertissements and related ballet sequences), British conductor Christian Curnyn and American director James Darrah focused on the dramatic story of the vengeful sorceress whose feckless hero-husband abandons her despite his need for her skills and ruthlessness.
The final entry in the trilogy of operas, Teseo, was perhaps the best of all as it presented drama while leaving the bloodshed of the story off stage. While Handel named the opera after the titular hero it could as easily have been titled "Medea redux" as she dominates more than half of the action even as her persona tragically spirals downward. Only in the final act do we see her evil magic overcome by the power of compassion and love from Teseo who has been rediscovered to be the son of King Egeo. The primary plot is propelled by Medea’s (Renée Tatum) desire for Teseo (Cecelia 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.
The musical accompaniment for Teseo was excellently performed by the Baroque Band conducted by Michael Beattie. Cecelia Hall’s portrayal of Teseo was the highlight of the opera. 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.
Baroque Europe must have been fascinated by the story of Medea for these were not alone among musical presentations. Other operas and cantatas featuring her in various versions of the myth were created in Italy, France, and Germany. Even after 1713 she continued to be of interested in the German melodrama by George Benda (1773) and the French opera by Cherubini in 1797. More recently she was the subject for composers such as Darius Milhaud and Samuel Barber. Medea's magic was surely present on Sunday afternoon as Handel's Teseo continued to please a twenty-first century audience.
W. Russell Flint,1910, Medea, Theseus and Aegeus (Top)
Warwick Goble, Medea (British illustrator, 1862-1943) (Bottom right)