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Light-hearted opera seria

The Alice Busch Opera Theater
07/18/2010 -  and July 23, 31*, August 8, 12, 14, 17, 23, 2010
George Frideric Handel: Tolomeo, HWV 25
Anthony Roth Costanzo (Tolomeo), Joélle Harvey (Seleuce), Julie Boulianne (Elisa), Steven LaBrie (Araspe), Karin Mushegain (Alessandro)
Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra, Christian Curnyn (Conductor)
Chas Rader-Schieber (Director), Donald Eastman (Sets), Andrea Hood (Costumes), Robert Wierzel (Lighting)

A. Costanzo & J. Boulianne (© Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Opera)

Glimmerglass produced its first Handel opera back in 1995, with Tamerlano directed by Jonathan Miller. This year’s Tolomeo (its first professional staging in North America) is the festival’s eighth Handel work, which as far as I can tell gives this venturesome company the continental record.

Handel composed Tolomeo in 1728 for his then cash-strapped company, the Royal Academy of Music. The libretto was assembled by his frequent collaborator, Nicola Francesco Haym, from a work by Alessandro Scarlatti. The Academy hired several of the top singers of the day, but the work itself calls for no great outlay in production expense: just five soloists, no chorus, no spectacular effects.

The work is most definitely in the opera seria mode, with the usual fanciful romantic entanglements. There’s an impressive number of arias, frequently sung by a soloist alone on the stage, with many noble sentiments expressed, along with some ignoble ones. However nobody goes mad and nobody dies. The plot also contains elements that appear in comedies: for example characters assume false identities, misconstrue one another’s motives, romantically pursue someone unsuitable, and there is much running about in the sylvan glades of an imaginary Cyprus.

Accordingly, director Chas Rader-Shieber has called forth a light-hearted, even whimsical, approach to the staging. Right at the start Tolomeo (Anthony Roth Costanzo, nimble both in voice and movement, giving further evidence of his quickly rising star) has a brief aria contemplating the sea - and it is addressed to a goldfish bowl. A full-size marlin hangs in the background. Later, the villain, Araspe, King of Cyprus, brandishes a serious-looking knife, but all he manages to do is stab himself in the hand - and then has one of his servants kiss it better.

The servants: three supers are used to help boost the dramatic and/or comedic action. They portray doddering retainers when not acting (with wigs removed) as Araspe’s bully boys. Given that two of the royal personages are in disguise as shepherds I was expecting a few sheep to appear. No such luck.

Joélle Harvey gives a glowing account of the nice princess, Seleuce, disguised as the shepherdess Delia. She is Tolomeo’s wife but is pursued by the wannabe wicked Araspe.

The not-so-nice princess, Elisa (Araspe’s sister) is spikily portrayed by Julie Boulianne - and what a difference from her portrayal of the ingenue Angelina in last season’s La Cenerentola. Her neon red hair is matched by her spike-heeled shoes. She finds she is smitten by a shepherd, Osmin, and is relieved to discover that he is really Tolomeo, king of Egypt - her elevated tastes hadn’t deserted her after all. In the end she settles for Alessandro, Tolomeo’s brother.

Young American Artists Program member Karin Mushegain does a downright distinguished job as Alessandro. He has been sent by his mother Cleopatra (not Caesar’s inamorata - this is an earlier generation) to murder Tolomeo (and Tolomeo thinks that is why he has come to Cyprus), but he really wants to reconcile with his brother. He falls in love with Elisa, but it takes her awhile to get over her love for the unattainable Osmin/Tolomeo.

In the final scene everyone ends up stripped to their underwear - even the servants. Tolomeo has reconnected with the lovely Seleuce, while Elisa and Alessandro have united. Odd man out Araspe just has to suck it back. How happy can an ending be?

Christian Curnyn’s way with the score is notably lively and varied throughout. It’s a pleasant surprise to get such stylish results from a non-specialist orchestra (supplemented by a continuo consisting of a baroque cello, theorbo, archlute and harpsichord). My one small musical reservation is that I would have liked to heard more varied timbres among the four high-lying roles (Araspe, ably performed by YAAP member Steven LaBrie, provides baritonal relief).

In a talk (July 31) outlining her ideas for the festival (and the word “festival” will finally appear in its name, thus confirming something Glimmerglass has always been), incoming Artistic Director Francesca Zambello emphasized a continuation of baroque performance, with an eye toward going beyond Handel (Vivaldi was mentioned). Welcome news.

Michael Johnson



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