Those lucky enough to garner a seat at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall on Saturday night, November 28 were in for a rare treat. Following on last season’s highly successful chamber opera evening, which paired John Blow’s Venus and Adonis with Charpentier’s Actéon, the Boston Early Music Festival brought us a superlative production of Handel’s much-loved Acis and Galatea.
Conceived as a courtly entertainment in the pastoral tradition, the English masque was composed for Handel’s patron, the Duke of Chandos, and first performed at his country estate in Cannons in 1718. The libretto, by John Gay (of Beggar’s Opera fame), in collaboration with John Hughes and Alexander Pope, tells the Ovidian tale of Galatea, a sea nymph, in love with the shepherd Acis. When her lover is killed in a jealous rage by the sea monster Polyphemus, Galatea makes him immortal by transforming him into an everlasting fountain.
In Gilbert Blin’s staging, the duke and duchess of Chandos appeared as Polyphemus and Galatea, with three courtiers playing the roles of Acis (tenor Aaron Sheehan) and his shepherd companions, Coridon and Damon (tenors Jason McStoots and Zachary Wilder). All were costumed by Anna Watkins in sumptuous court dress, complete with extravagant curly wigs; only a black eye-patch identified the duke as the one-eyed giant Cyclops. All five singers more than lived up to the standards we have come to expect from BEMF productions. Handel’s magnificently characteristic arias were graced with improvised and beautifully executed ornamentation in da capo repeats, and outstanding diction and tonal clarity enlivened the ensemble numbers in which the soloists doubled as choristers. Standing in for the ailing Amanda Forsythe, soprano Teresa Wakim carried off the role of Galatea with aplomb, eloquently shadowed by dancer Melinda Sullivan. As Polyphemus, Douglas Williams displayed a stylistically convincing Handelian bass of wide range and flexibility. A top-notch ensemble of baroque instrumentalists headed by Paul O’Dette, Stephen Stubbs, and Robert Mealy was on stage, providing additional visual pleasure. Oboists Gonzalo Ruiz and Kathryn Montoya doubled on recorders, ably mimicking warbling birds (“Hush, ye pretty warbling Quire!”) as well as martial trumpets (“Love sound th’Alarm”).
Slyly humorous without ever becoming arch, coy, or condescending, stylistically true without being precious, this was baroque re-enactment at its very best. What a shame that BEMF was able to give us only one performance this season!