“Love conquers all.” Too often this phrase has been repeated, yet too true this statement has proven. Rather than just being a passionate emotion in which desires of the world and flesh prevail, true love is a genuine feeling which trials or extreme evil cannot break, even in the most difficult of circumstances. Countless works of literature, film, and art – including musical compositions – have sought to communicate this message, and opera is no exception, since love often serves as opera’s keystone material. This past Saturday night, Chicago Opera Theater staged an outstanding and tastefully modern production of Handel’s Teseo, in which Medea – the Ancient Greek sorceress of “Jason and the Golden Fleece” fame – is ultimately vanquished by the power of true love.

Cecelia Hall (Teseo) sings to Manuela Bisceglie (Agilea) © Liz Lauren
Cecelia Hall (Teseo) sings to Manuela Bisceglie (Agilea)
© Liz Lauren

Concluding the company’s three-year Medea trilogy centering around this satanic sorceress, this masterfully staged production continued a fine legacy of Baroque opera performance in the Chicago area. Because this group is a semi-pro and community group, I had expected lower quality in both the singing and sets than those at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Furthermore, since the singers in the group were not necessarily Baroque singers per se, I expected to hear much modern singing with faint traces of Baroque technique and sound. After all, in the Lyric’s production of Rinaldo when three female chorus members had starred as the three ladies who deceive Rinaldo, they sang with modern technique and a Romantic, vibrato-laden sound that greatly clashed with the overall Baroque sound of the mainstream cast. I soon discovered that I was mistaken in my preconceived notions. Each of the singers performed with sparkling, flawless Baroque technique and tone rivaling the finest Baroque singers that I have seen at the Lyric; the coloratura runs and countertenor parts were so cleanly and musically executed that I was totally taken aback and gave huge, heartfelt applause to all following the production. Though the entire cast undoubtedly captured my approval, Renee Tatum’s powerful voice and portrayal of Medea proved a most superb combination in conveying the message of a most demonic woman who will stop at nothing to accomplish her intermost desires.

The simple yet highly detailed set – a masterful combination of past and present – was carefully crafted of elaborate, Baroque-style furniture and Greek columns; modern and historic references perfectly blended together without appearing jarring. Unlike the Lyric’s Rinaldo production, in which modernization overpowered the production to the point of confusion, the modernization in this production proved superb and a wonderful updating of classic Baroque staging. In particular, lighting and special effects were some of the finest I have seen in any opera production. Darkness descended whenever Medea demonstrated her vengeance; crystal chandeliers ascended to the heavens; and corpses rose from the dead, exiting the stage hand in hand. Although this production did include quite a few “naughty” and sensuous gags, they did not become the focus of the production and could go easily unnoticed by the more innocent members of the audience.

Accompanying this outstanding singing, Baroque Band – Chicago’s period instrument orchestra, of which I have previously attended several outstanding concerts – scored another period instrument victory with its outstanding string and continuo sections. The violinists – the crowning achievement of the ensemble – displayed a technical fireworks show of emotions ranging from tumultuous fury to subtle pining, while the remaining, lower strings added an alarmingly deep growl to the bass. Meanwhile in the continuo section, harpsichord and Baroque guitar/theorbo daintily tinkled along like hung pieces of glass being brushed together by the wind, while Baroque bassoon rounded out the bass strings with its deeper, guttural tones. Unfortunately, however, the oboe and recorder playing was weak, the players struggling with articulation and tone, and often drowned out by the singers. Considering the overall professional nature of the group and outstanding level of its players, this was surprising.

Despite the flaws mentioned above, however, this Teseo production was most worthy fare for all seeking uplifting and expertly staged entertainment in the Chicago area. Not only does it masterfully combine superb musicianship with superb staging, but it also brings a highly optimistic and potent message to modern audiences in today’s society: that good will always prevail in the end, even if evil appears to be powerful and victorious. Medea’s ultimate defeat by goodness was truly joyful, and a much-needed moment of optimism.

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