`Teseo': an attempt to re-create 1713 style

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Conductor Nicholas McGegan has of late made a name for himself not only as a fine baroque musical specialist, but a stager of baroque operas in their original style. His production of Handel's ``Teseo,'' first seen this past June as part of the Boston Early Music Festival, opened last Thursday for a four-performance run at the PepsiCo Summerfare festival here. These performances constitute the United States stage premi`ere of a lesser-known Handel opera.

Mr. McGegan and the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra make beautiful music together. The players perform on period instruments, making beguiling sounds. Each member plays as if it were the most important thing in the world, and Mr. McGegan conducts with a deep-rooted love of the music, the idiom, the sound of original instruments, and the theatrical vitality of the score.

Unfortunately, the visual side of things was not so impressive. The Scott W. Blake sets attempt to re-create the 1713 London production, except that the trompe l'oeil drops are rather too sketchily executed. Mr. McGegan's stage direction is at best naive, at worst grotesque. All the singers strut and pose. The men, in particular, are asked to parade around in outrageously foppish fashion. The costumes look like the ones in woodcuts of the period, but the color schemes, particularly against the set drops, are often garish.

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Granted, the dramatic conventions of those days are hardly ours. The famous castrati for which Handel wrote his showiest roles were often awkward on stage, but they were presences -- even superstars. They had avid followings; every arm gesture was appreciated, every vocal roulade was doted on. Here, these variably gifted singers are all painfully self-conscious; they lack galvanizing presence; they re-create this strutting and gesticulating with not the remotest sense of believing in it.

Nor was there any sense of how the singers of yore interacted with their public. In fact, Mr. McGegan consistently discouraged applause between arias, whereas in Handel's day, the post-aria bows were as much a part of the show as anything.

Among the best singers was Nancy Armstrong as the fiery Medea. Drew Minter, the Arcane, put his unusually smooth countertenor to expert use throughout the performance. In the title role, Randall Wong, who is billed as a sopranist, afforded us the unsettling spectacle of a musicianly but tentative singer trying to emulate a soprano (in voice and presence) emulating a male character in the then-accepted tradition of travesti (women in men's clothes). This was but a microcosm of the evening's problems. If there is to be any validity in re-creating a defunct performance style for a public that now sees it as at least faintly ridiculous, a genuinely gifted stage director and far more competent singing actors will be needed.

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