Teseo (1713) – among Handel’s many wonderful operas – is a unique synthesis of the French tragédie lyrique and Italian opera seria, created to captivate the new opera audience of London. Its rich, unusual scoring, with virtuoso oboe parts and split violas and bassoons, combined with the delicate poetry of its libretto, were perhaps too original – after its popular (though disaster prone) run of performances in London between January 10 and May 11 1713, it was not revived again for 234 years!

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George Frideric Handel
© Public Domain

It was Handel’s second London opera, written only months after he met the 18 year old Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, who was the composer’s host and patron between 1712 and 1715. Its success recalled the triumph of Rinaldo (1711), and effaced the cooler reception accorded Il Pastor Fido (1712), a charming, lighter work, without theatrical sensation. Like Rinaldo, it featured a spurned and wrathful enchantress who puts many obstacles in the way of virtuous lovers – but its dramatic construction in five acts, with many short arias and accompanied recitatives, is utterly unlike Rinaldo. Remarkably, the major characters each sing two arias in a row when first they appear, and only exceptionally do the characters exit after their arias. The reason is that the librettist Haym follows closely the tragedy written by Quinault for the French composer Lully (actually the Italian Lulli, but that’s another matter). Whether it was a whim of the opera’s dedicatee, Lord Burlington, or a commercial hunch of Handel’s, Teseo is clearly an attempt to bring together the finest qualities of utterly dissimilar genres of opera, French and Italian.

The venture was served in London by fine artists: Elisabetta Pilotto-Schiavonetti, a specialist sorceress, played Medea; the soprano castrato Pellegrini (known to Handel in Venice, where he created the great role of Nero in the composer’s Agrippina) played Teseo; Agilea was portrayed by one of the leading lights of Italian opera in London, Margherita de l’Epine, and her sister Maria Gallia played Clizia; Egeo was played by London’s favourite Italian castrato at the time, Valentini, and Arcane was sung by the English contralto Jane Berbier, who did a particular line in trouser roles. The singers showed their faith when they stayed together on a profit-share basis after the impresario Owen MacSwiney absconded with the takings after the second performance, and they attempted to save the show after the machinery broke down and word quickly spread that there was no spectacle to be seen.

What makes Teseo a great opera is the depth and variety of its characterisation in music. The female protagonists are superbly contrasted: Agilea (virtuous, constant, brave, loveable and loving, in no way insipid), who dominates Act 1, is set against Medea (powerful, mercurial, frightening, unloved and yearning for affection, not quite pitiable), who is on stage for every moment of Act 2. Beside Agilea is the slightly shallow Clizia, who admires men of action, and sends her lethargic lover spinning in no very useful direction, but eventually learns to love. The other two high voiced males are the title character, a study in impetuous courage, undeviating affection and trust, and his more complicated father Egeo, fond verging on foolish, perhaps, in his love for a younger woman, a little ineffectual as a king-warrior, less than plain in his dealings with his guest and powerful ally, Medea. The hero’s return to the war-torn city brings all of these into conflict.

These notes were kindly contributed by English Touring Opera, whose production of Teseo opens in London at the Britten Theatre (Royal College of Music) on Friday 16th October 2009, before touring nationally through November. The production is set in a church sanctuary and a surprising operating theatre, both with the qualities of 17th century Dutch painting. Counter-tenor Derek Lee Ragin recreates the wavering king, with sopranos Jeni Byrne and Claire Booth the heartsick enchantress and her rival.