COOPERSTOWN, NY – Most music lovers and opera buffs would agree that programming anything by Handel in this day and age can be box office suicide if it’s not a staple from the repertoire, like his oratorio, Messiah. That was not the case on Sunday as the curtain rose to a full house in the beautiful Alice Busch Opera Theater in upstate New York. The seemingly outdated aria after aria musical shape of a Handel opera would put even the older, less ADHD prone, patron to sleep. Again, this was not the case. Glimerglass’ production of Handel’s Tolomeo was quite honestly the most stunning opera I’ve seen all year.
This happens to be the first US production of Tolomeo and, I’m predicting, not it’s last. The wonderfully engaging direction by Chas Rader-Shieber, along with his gifted production team, breathed lasting life into a little known opera. Oddly enough, the opera seria was staged as a romantic comedy, making this production incredibly unique. I’ll explain more, but first, a condensed version of the plot:
Tolomeo, a ruler of Egypt, has been exiled to Cyprus along with his wife Seleuce. However, Tolomeo is unaware of his wife’s whereabouts. Both are in disguise as shepherd and shepherdess. To complicate the lost lovers’ situation further, Princess Elisa and her brother, King Araspe, are in love with Tolomeo and Seleuce, respectively. Tolomeo’s brother, Alessandro, is found shipwrecked in Cyprus and tries to win Elisa’s heart. Araspe and Elisa demand Alessandro to kill Tolomeo after Tolomeo and Seleuce discover each other in Cyprus. After a series of miscalculated events by the jealous rulers, Tolomeo and Seleuce reunite after facing death.
Certainly some purist would have a hard time dealing with this staging of Tolomeo – “One wants to find a light touch in the heaviest moment, as well as an emotional truth in the lightest,” states director Chas Rader-Shieber. Now, your definition of “light touch” and “emotional truth” is probably different than Mr. Rader-Shieber. As the curtain rose, a plastic swordfish, which one would find in a seafood restaurant, “swam” in from above the stage to simulate that the action was taking place near the sea. The audience laughed as the orchestra played the opening somber chords of Tolomeo’s first aria. When Seleuce sang of gentle breezes a number of electric fans were brought onstage and plugged in to blow her hair back. Finally, this occurred several times, some type of movement or action would draw attention away from the performer during an aria. These tactics are but a sample of the unique and engaging stage fair that was used in this modern staging. I was, at first, jarred by what seemed to be tasteless distractions, something akin to euro-trash productions, but quickly realized that each “distraction,” quirky or not, was creating a new framework in which Handel’s work could survive.
While the music from Tolomeo is completely new to most ears, one must put into perspective the outdated style of a Handelian opera. Today’s audience is not use to an evening of straight arias and that’s what you are in for; roughly twenty arias, two duets and one large ensemble at the end make up this fascinating opera.
A huge amount of pressure must be placed on a director of a Handel opera as it is an incredibly important task to find inventive and engaging way to stage an evening of beautiful arias. If done wrong, it could mean nailing the final nail into Handel’s operas in a certain community. At this point in time, someone has to prove that Handel’s operas are still viable to the opera world. Even though I was disappointed at times for my attention being drawn away from the beautiful music and artistry, the stage direction did keep my eyes from wandering to my watch, which in the long run, sells tickets.
From a musical standpoint, the production was very solid. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo as Tolomeo was consistent with a bright and rounded tone and he explored many dramatic and dynamic aspects. Julie Boulianne, Elisa, and Joélle Harvey, Seleuce, were both crisp and clean in the execution of the difficult coloratura passages. Boulianne thrived in this modern staging with a very nuanced and animated approach to her character and Harvey had a beautiful lyric timbre that was enchanting. Two members of the Young American Artists played the roles of Alessandro, Karin Mushegain, and Araspe, Steven LaBrie. Each filled the role well, but were a bit methodical in their vocal approach.
With forty-two operas in the Handelian repertory, it’s not surprising that Tolomeo was largely ignored or lost in the mix of opera seria. The rediscovery of this piece and exploration of innovative staging of this underutilized genre of opera is what the opera world needs as we look ahead to the uncertain future. More opera companies will fare better tomorrow if they emulate this production of Tolomeo, which was fresh and inventive. Christian Curnyn, the orchestra’s excellent leader, put the production this way: “Our performance is informed by the lost art of rhetoric… what we are doing is not baroque [opera], it is brand new.”