LENOX — The decades-old Handel revival, which has brought a host of the composer’s works out of obscurity and into mainstream venues, shows no signs of running out of steam. Evidence of its ongoing vitality was plentiful on Thursday, when the San Francisco-based Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra gave a vibrant and beautifully sung concert performance of Handel’s early opera “Teseo” at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall under music director Nicholas McGegan.
Premiered in 1713, “Teseo” is an unusual fusion of French and Italian operatic models, and the only Handel opera in five acts. From the start it was beset by difficulty: The house manager absconded with the box-office proceeds after the second performance, and the complex set machinery broke down during the fourth. After its initial run in London, it was not revived until 1947.
The story is derived from the mythological figure of Theseus. He has fallen in love with the princess Agilea, who is under the protection of the king, Egeo. (Unbeknownst to the king, Teseo is his son.) But Egeo, too, has fallen in love with Agilea, and the sorceress Medea threatens to kill Teseo in order to have him for herself. Adjacent to this love square is another couple — Arcane, the king’s adviser, and Clizia, Agilea’s trusted friend. Complications, magic spells, and divine intervention all ensue before righteousness triumphs at the end.
What the plot lacks in drama it makes up for in knowing humor, and the cast effectively played up its campy charm. It was unclear, by the end, why “Teseo” is such a rarity, for it overflows with virtuoso arias, imaginative scoring, and richly characterized vocal writing. At its center stand two opposing figures: the scheming, deceitful Medea and the honorable Agilea. The sopranos who sang these roles perfectly captured the dichotomy. Amy Freston, as Agilea, sang with airy effervescence and seemingly effortless ornamentation; her “Amarti sì vorrei” in Act IV was spare and devastating. By contrast, Dominique Labelle was a brilliantly earthy Medea, pivoting abruptly between delicacy and rage. Her range of vocal colors and textures was on full display in her furious Act V pledge of vengeance, “Morirò, ma vendicata.”
The rest of the cast was also strong. Soprano Amanda Forsythe was tremendous in the role of Teseo. Her singing was focused and agile, yet she was completely at ease with the character’s dramatic swagger. Countertenor Robin Blaze, as Arcane, sang with irresistible sweetness, and soprano Céline Ricci was an engagingly flirtatious Clizia. Countertenor Drew Minter created a suitably vain and showy Egeo, though he seemed to slip from head voice to chest voice several times. Baritone Jeffrey Fields and tenor Jonathan Smucker filled out the cast.
The dynamic elegance that Handel’s music requires is second nature to the Philharmonia; even more impressive was the palpable, physical presence they gave the score. Individual musicians made essential contributions: Oboist Marc Schachman was Freston’s heroic partner in the Act I coloratura aria “M’adora l’idol mio,” and cellist Phoebe Carrai was a sensitive accompanist during several numbers. The entire continuo group, in fact, did yeoman’s work throughout.
No one seemed to enjoy the performance more than McGegan, whose passion for this neglected work animated the entire evening. Every detail, no matter how small, seemed to elicit a wide smile. Given the work’s abortive premiere, the composer would likely have been heartened by the hearty response from the audience.David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.