HANDEL: Teseo (highlights) – Dominique Labelle (Medea)/ Amanda Forsythe (Teseo)/ Amy Freston (Agilea)/ Drew Mintner (Egeo)/ Chorus (Jonathan Smucker)/ Philharmonia Baroque Orch./ Nicholas McGegan – Philharmonia

HANDEL: Teseo (highlights) – Dominique Labelle (Medea)/ Amanda Forsythe (Teseo)/ Amy Freston (Agilea)/ Drew Mintner (Egeo)/ Robin Blaze (Arcane)/ Celine Ricci (Clizia)/ Chorus (Jonathan Smucker)/ Philharmonia Baroque Orch./ Nicholas McGegan – Philharmonia PBP-07, 77:59 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] *****:

This is my first encounter with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s own label. Curiously, in the notes, conductor McGegan makes the comment that he hopes this recording will lead folks to seek out “complete” recordings of this opera. One of my favorites is the Minkowski on Erato from 1992, a fine performance by almost any measure. But this new one, unfortunately only of excerpts from a concert performance in 2013, beats Minkowski hands down. Why in the world did they not record the whole opera? This seems like a genuine waste to me, and perhaps there is something about the orchestra label that doesn’t allow 2-CD sets; but even so, how about issuing it as volumes 1 and 2? At any rate, as fine a recording as this deserves completeness, and this sampler whets the appetite and disappoints because of the torso status.

Dominique Labelle and Amanda Forsythe and the stars here, both hot on the current opera circuit, and they do not let us down, both sparkling, well-acted readings that do great justice to Handel’s none-too-easy vocal lines. Of course there are no big tunes in this work the way there are in Handel’s first big London success (after moving there permanently) Rinaldo, and the piece only enjoyed about thirteen performances before ending—until 1947. The first American performance was by McGegan himself in Boston in 1985, so he has long experience with the work and is able to guide his singers very well.

The two castrato parts are taken by countertenors, and even though Mintner and Blaze are two of the best, I wonder how the parts would fare instead with two sopranos, which would have more power. Handel did, after all, write this work soprano-heavy, and the whole lights up time after time because of the vocal prowess he put on display. Teseo is as confused from a libretto standpoint as anything he ever wrote, and although he did not put as much orchestral firepower in this as in Rinaldo, there is still lots of exciting and brilliant writing for flute, oboe, and recorder. There is also, as far as has been determined, no previously-used music. Rinaldo was full of it, probably about two-third rehashed, and Handel most likely needed some tried and true stuff to ensure his “debut”. Teseo was third in line, and Handel needed to offset the pastoral IL pastor fido—not much of a success right after Rinaldo—with something that returned to a more spectacular idiom. The result is one of his most original and even greatest opera, with highly creative music that was done specifically to make a splash on the London audiences. It didn’t, but it does now, and deserves wider exposure. McGegan’s effort, what there is of it, is a good start. Maybe he will finish it.

The sound is clear and close, not unlike the host of recordings he made for Harmonia mundi in days gone by. The PBO plays with a rarified passion and breathless technical wizardry.

—Steven Ritter

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