Conductor: Michael Beattie
Director: James Darrah
At the Harris Theater at Millenium Park, Chicago
Medea’s madness must end in this finale to the three-part opera series.
When last we saw Medea (Renée Tatum)—the infamously mercurial mythological sorceress—she had burned Corinth to the ground in revenge for scorned love and murdered her two children born of Jason, her unfaithful lover. Handel’s Teseo opens with the city of Athens under siege by a civil war and its King Egeo (Gerald Thompson) giving asylum and his hand in marriage to Medea in exchange for her dark arts aiding him against his enemies. There’s a rival for the king’s affection in the form of the pure-hearted Agilea (Manuela Bisceglie), whom we see in the opening scene taking refuge in a palace safe room while battle roars outside. When the king unwisely turns on Medea after victory, her legendary temper is unleashed upon all in her path.
Teseo—aka Theseus—(Cecelia Hall, replacing the traditional castrati) has come to Athens to aid the king’s armies. His subsequent victory creates a conflict when the citizens declare him their desired leader. Adding to the complication is his love for Agilea, whom the king also desires. Rejected, Medea’s eyes fall upon Teseo, and his rejection of her for Agilea leads to her calling upon the depths of Hell for revenge. Rivalries and loyalties are tested against the power of a tyrannical king and the will of a rebuffed sorceress. Can love triumph over such powerful machinations? Added to the already complex mix are the somewhat extraneous (though no less ably performed) characters of Clizia (Deanna Breiwick) as Agilea’s confidante and her lover Arcano (David Trudgen). Twists and turns, mood shifts and revelations abound as it moves towards a rather unexpected end (for modern audiences) as Medea realizes she’s met her match in her very antithesis. It’s a quintessentially Baroque reworking of the classic mythos of the increasingly mad Medea told in Handel’s only five-act opera seria from 1713.
The ensuing tale is not nearly as important as the music on display. Supertitles translate the Italian, but it’s always recommended to simply read the detailed program beforehand to understand the proceedings and allow oneself to be transported by the soaring arias in all their ornate splendor. It’s a young ensemble of six (this version omits a small bass priestess role), but their skill is impressive and beyond their years. Teseo is intended for high voices, and Tatum’s mezzo-soprano and Trudgen’s countertenor are distinguished for their stunning clarity and purity. Tatum is every bit a force of nature, carrying herself with a regal presence and a form seemingly carved in antiquity—cold and implacable as a marble goddess. Her range is impressively demonstrated, particularly in a heartbreaking aria in which she must contemplate the cost of her revenge, “Morirò, ma vendicata.” As the titular character, Cecelia Hall’s mezzo-soprano is resplendent as a young man driven by loyalty and a youthful, fearless ardor.
Set design by François-Pierre Couture brings the ancient tale into Mussolini-era Italy roughly 1930. It’s a strangely austere environ, augmented by Julian Pike’s lighting design which creates a stark tenebrism of sharply lit foreground and murky background. The costumes by James Darrah range from updates on Roman dresses to Fascist uniforms. It doesn’t quite mesh, but it’s hardly a quibble against such wonderful performances.
Brimming with energy and enthusiasm, the twenty-three person orchestra is youthful and jaunty, merrily bringing this three-hundred-year-old lesser-known Handel to extravagant heights (I particularly enjoyed the bass of the Theorbo, played by Michael Leopold). It’s nearly three hours of sheer Baroque indulgence that brings a satisfying lieto fine to the series exploring the depths of Madea’s madness. Hell may have no fury like her scorn, but this opera is pure heaven.
Date Reviewed: April 21, 2012
At Harris Theatre, 205 E. Randolph, Chicago, IL; call 312.334.7777; tickets $25-125 (discounted student and group rates available); performances April 27, 29 and May 2, at 7:30pm; running time 2 hours 45 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.