Handel: Teseo, highlights (CD review)

Dominique Labelle, Amanda Forsythe, Amy Freston, Drew Minter, Robin Blaze, Celine Ricci; Nicholas McGegan, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra. Philharmonia Baroque Productions PBP-07.

There are probably a few things you should know before considering this recording of Handel's opera seria Teseo by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Maestro Nicholas McGegan, and a sterling cast. First, there is a reason why some music seldom gets recorded; Teseo isn't exactly a barnburner, and you'll find very few recorded performances of it. It didn't do too well in Handel's time, either, and until now it hasn't done all that well in our own time.

Second, there are a couple of technical issues one needs to address. Namely, Philharmonia Baroque Productions made the recording live, with all its attendant shortcomings in audience and stage noise. In addition, as it is a highlights disc, there are some frankly odd editing quirks involved. More on this later.

Finally, if one is truly to enjoy the performance, one has to erase memories of Abe Vigoda's role of Sal Tessio in The Godfather. Absolutely no relationship, but I had trouble thinking of Handel anytime I heard the name Teseo.

Fortunately, none of this makes a lot of difference because the cast, the orchestra, the conducting, and the performances are so good.

German composer George Frideric Handel (1685–1759) wrote Teseo as his third opera after settling permanently in England. Following the opera's première in 1713, it received about a dozen more performances and then basically dropped off the map. The story, set in ancient Greece, involves all kinds of romances, several pairs of lovers, treacheries, sorcery, and a few lighthearted exchanges. A few interesting characteristics of the opera are that Handel composed it in five acts rather than his usual three, possibly a reflection of the libretto's French origins (Lully); unlike much of his compositional work, he used almost no borrowings from his own previous music; and he scored most of the roles for high voices.

Soprano Dominique Labelle plays Medea; soprano Amanda Forsythe plays Teseo; soprano Amy Freston is Agilea; countertenors Drew Minter and Robin Blaze are Egeo and Arcane; soprano Celine Ricci is Clizia; baritone Jeffrey Fields plays a priest of Minerva; and tenor Jonathan Smucker plays the Chorus.

Anyway, the important thing is how it comes off, which is very well, indeed. As usual, the Philharmonia Baroque play exquisitely, with a healthy appetite for Handel's rhythms. In other words, they play with a lively bounce and are always a pleasure to hear. Equally important, the singers are splendid, especially Ms. Labelle and Ms. Forsythe. They bring a drama and warmth to the roles that seem unbeatable, and their art is letter perfect.

Let me put it another way: While there is little in Handel's opera that one might say is truly memorable (I doubt you will find yourself humming any passages after hearing it), the PBO and singers make it all highly enjoyable as you're listening to it. The performance sounds continuously joyful, and one cannot fault any part it.

Now, about those couple of drawbacks: Because of the live recording, we get all of the associated problems such an occasion offers. We are always aware of the audience presence, their breathing, their coughing, their reactions, and their occasional shuffling of feet. Moreover, there is a small amount of stage noise to contend with, as well as applause. Yes, that applause. As is their wont, opera fans tend to break out into applause at every other note a singer utters. Thankfully, the engineer edited out a good deal of that applause but much of it still remains. Don't get me wrong; I love live performances...when I'm there myself, live and present. But a recording cannot fool me into believing there's a live audience in my living room, where I expect an entirely different experience, noise-free.

Then there's the matter of the editing. The disc offers a collection of highlights from the complete opera performance, so, of course, we expect to find the selections edited. However, many of the edits at the end of tracks seem downright awkward to me, cutting off notes, cutting off or fading out on applause, and making sometimes ungainly transitions.

David v.R. Bowles produced, engineered, edited, and mastered the recording, which he made at First Congregational Church, Berkeley, CA in April 2013. The live sound he obtained is pretty much as I remember it from my many visits to First Congregational over the years. There's a pleasantly light, reverberant bloom to the sound, all of the instruments come through with solidity and clarity, and voices are reasonably natural throughout. Perhaps because of the live recording, there is a slight degree of brightness to the sound, but if anything it adds to the orchestral transparency. Still, I think the overall sound quality could have been better without a live audience present and maybe if the engineer had made it in one of the PBO's other recording venues. My guess is that cost constraints play a big part in live vs. studio recording.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa