Handel: Teseo, highlights (CD review)
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:
William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer
Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.
The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.