Chicago Opera Theater’s production of Handel’s "Teseo" is a marvel of efficiency. This second production of the COT season may be as different from its opener (Shostakovich’s "Moscow, Cheryomushki") as it is visually, sonically, and cognitively possible to be.
In addition to serving as the middle entry in the 2012 season, though, "Teseo" is also the conclusion of the company’s three-season, three-composer exploration of the Medea mythology. Unsurprisingly, given that COT rarely misses, the staging succeeds on its own terms, bids fair for this season to deliver COT’s "opera less ordinary" mission statement, and provides a satisfying conclusion to the long-term mythological arc.
In Handel’s third opera, the composer departs from some of the Baroque conventions. Although "Teseo" isn’t quite through composed, it also lacks the expected entrance and exit arias that direct the audience’s attention and applause and define a framework for moving characters on and off the stage.
Director James Darrah manages the cast in a way that emphasizes that the war has made for some truly strange bedfellows before the story begins, and that things will just keep getting stranger: Clizia and Arcano literally move the furniture around in exasperated attempts to stay ahead of the shifting loyalties and betrothals of their betters.
In these supporting roles, Deanna Breiwick and David Trudgen play the comedy perfectly, adding a modern flavor to this chapter in Medea’s story that evokes the delightfully trashy design of 2010’s "Giasone."
Medea circles the stage, always observing, and light changes with and pulses around her, a constant reminder that the characters -- and Athens itself -- live and die by her whims.
Darrah’s blocking and stage business are purposeful and, for the most part, effective. (There was some fixation on wrapping and unwrapping of scarves and garments that felt like more than enough by the time Agilea and Teseo enter in Act V with sheer white fabric roughly the length of a football field.)
François-Pierre Couture’s set design accommodates the dueling images of war, decay, and decline on the one hand, and renewal and possibility on the other. The entrance to the one secure room in the palace is a massive picture frame that lists toward the upstage wall. Set within it are three gorgeous floor-to-ceiling art glass panels that pivot on central supports. Backlighting throws hulking shadows over the stage, reminding the audience and characters alike of what is at stake literally outside the door.
Before the intermission, the room is cluttered with two long tables, fallen chandeliers, a dozen chairs or so, and a number of pitchers, bowls, and so on -- the scavenged remains of Egeo’s opulence. Agilea uses these to wash away the blood and dust of war, while Medea works her dark magic with them. Darrah and Couture, who also collaborated on the costume design, accomplish a great deal with a relatively spare, static set.
The music, of course, is exquisite, and Michael Beattie, conducting contributors from Chicago’s Baroque Band, does it every bit of justice. The biggest criticism that can be leveled at "Teseo" is attributable to Handel: Fans of the lower register are out of luck. The opera is written for three sopranos and three castrati/countertenors, though COT’s Medea and Teseo are both mezzo-sopranos.
On the up side for those who miss ensemble vocal work in Baroque opera, Handel again breaks from convention and gives us a number of duets and some stunning interplay between voice and instruments in the straight-up arias.
Manuela Bisceglie brings surprising emotional depth to Agilea (a role that could easily descend into crackerjack prize territory) with both the richness of her voice and her willingness to play the character as young, but seasoned by her experiences. Darrah stages the stunning, sexy duet between Agilea and Teseo on the apron in front of the curtain and both Bisceglie and Cecilia Hall (Teseo) knock it out of the park.
Hall’s performance is so understated and such a contrast to the huge personalities around her that initially I wasn’t sure that she was quite up to the level of her peers, dramatically (I have no complaints with any of the cast vocally -- they’re all superb); however, in the context of the whole piece, Hall’s slow build lends a really interesting layer of humanity to the mythic character. Teseo is just becoming Teseo, after all.
Medea, in contrast, is unraveling here. Renée Tatum’s allows her to be human and larger than life by turns. Tatum’s lush figure and voice, her deliberate, sensuous movement, and really responsive work by her cast mates sell Medea’s her emotional swings with more sympathy than I would have thought possible.
Gerald Thompson deserves special mention for mirroring and refracting Tatum’s performance with his own as Egeo. It’s hard to see how one characterization could have worked without the other.
"Teseo" runs through May 2 at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, Chicago. For info or tickets call 312-704-8414 or visit http://ChicagoOperaTheater.org.