New Production of Early Handel Opera Teseo in Frankfurt

GermanyGermany Handel: Teseo, Frankfurter Opern und Museumsorchester, Felice Venanzoni (conductor), Frankfurt’s Bockenheimer Depot, 7.6.2013. (JMI)

New Production:
Direction: Tilmann Köhler
Sets: Karoly Risz
Costumes: Susanne Uhl
Lighting: Frank Keller

Teseo: Jenny Carlstedt
Medea: Gaëlle Arquez
Agilea: Juanita Lascarro
Egeo: William Towers
Clizia: Anna Ryberg
Arcane: Matthias Rexroth


TESEO  Georg Friedrich HŠandel  Oper Frankfurt
TESEO Georg Friedrich HŠandel Oper Frankfurt (c) Barbara Aumüller

The British Magazine Opera recently granted its 2013 Opera Company of the Year Award to Oper Frankfurt. They also received the award in 1995, 1996 and 2003, and I think it is well-deserved: there is always an interesting and high level opera on offer here, even without the big stars that can be seen in Munich.

Frankfurt could not be more active musically. To the modern Opernhaus, opened in 1960, partially destroyed by fire in 1987 and reopened in 1991, should be added the beautiful Alte Oper, active today as a concert hall. In recent years a new space, the Bockenheimer Depot, has been created in the city’s old tram garage, and it accommodates a small theater of 400 seats, where Oper Frankfurt offers mainly baroque operas. It appears that now the city wants to use the building for other purposes, and there is a fight going on between the Oper Frankfurt and the City Council about the matter.

Oper Frankfurt has now staged a little-known work by Handel, Teseo, which is the third of the operas he composed during his stay in London. It premiered in 1713 and mainly disappeared, except for some comebacks at festivals such as Göttingen in 1947, and later with the English Touring Opera in 2007. I found it a very interesting opera from a musical point of view with very bright passages, especially those performed by Agilea and Medea, but it has the disadvantage of a libretto that is somewhat boring with its mythological characters and their complicated love affairs.

This new production bears the signature of Tilmann Köhler, who was making his Frankfurt debut. He sets the action in modern times, which it is not a problem given that these mythological characters are as strange now as in any earlier times. But Köhler’s work is rather uninteresting. During the first half of the opera he presents a production that is too close to a semi-staged or concert version. The stage is just a narrow space (less than 3 meters deep) enclosed by a wooden wall, and the only props are a series of truncated plastic corpses; one doesn’t know if they are meant to come from a museum or from an orthopedics magazine. What is their meaning? Don’t ask me. The mannequins stand in for the six characters of the opera when they don’t sing, which is exactly what happens in a concert version when the singers move to chairs. At the end of the third act the wooden wall is lifted to reveal an ample dark space at the back and a raised platform to which the mannequins are transferred. It was used for the final scene, but until then the opera continued to take place in the narrow front space of the stage.

Even the costumes could be used for a casual concert version; only the character of Medea had a more attractive outfit. One original idea was to present in Act 1 a female character who gets transformed on stage into Teseo by donning jeans and putting gel on her hair. There’s no explanation for it dramatically, but it served to leave behind the tediousness of the concert version for a while.

The musical direction was a pleasant surprise. Felice Venanzoni offered a very careful reading, significantly better than what we heard from Curtis or Hogwood a few days earlier in Madrid. His conducting seemed to me quite inspired, very well suited for the needs of baroque opera. Under his baton was the orchestra of Oper Frankfurt playing on period instruments, and they were really good.

We are used to attending performances of Baroque operas with singers who specialize in the genre, often on international tours. Frankfurt offered this Handel opera with singers belonging to the company, which has its risks but ultimately worked well. The best performance of the evening by far was that of French mezzo soprano Gaëlle Arquez in the part of Medea, who is the real protagonist of this opera. She has everything to ensure an outstanding career: she is young (29), beautiful, expressive, and has an important and attractive voice. Her Medea was totally convincing, to which it must be added that she was the only singer on stage with a remarkable Italian diction. Ms. Arquez and Mr. Venanzoni were the big assets of this performance.

Jenny Carlstedt was a good Teseo, singing with gusto and conviction, but her voice is not very remarkable in timbre or volume. Juanita Lascarro was a well-suited Agilea, better in the lyrical passages than in arias di bravura. Neither Carlstedt nor Lascarro have an easy coloratura. Anna Ryberg was a modest Clizia.

There were also two countertenors, William Towers (Egeo) and Matthias Rexroth (Arcane), whose voices were not very agile. They fulfilled their task, but there are stronger singers in this vocal range.

The Bockenheimer Depot was completely sold out. The public showed a respectful silence during the performance, but at the end the artists were received in triumph. The biggest cheers were for Gaëlle Arquez and Jenny Carlstedt.

José Mª. Irurzun