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Baroque Re-enactment at Its Very Best: BEMF’s “Acis and Galatea”


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.

Aaron Sheehan as Acis (foreground) and Teresa Wakim as Galatea (background).  Courtesy of David Walker.
Aaron Sheehan as Acis (foreground) and Teresa Wakim as Galatea (background). Courtesy of David Walker.

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.

Teresa Wakim as Galatea (foreground) and Douglas Williams as Polyphemus (background). Courtesy of David Walker.
Teresa Wakim as Galatea (foreground) and Douglas Williams as Polyphemus (background). Courtesy of David Walker.

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!

Virginia Newes lives in Cambridge. She was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. And Aaron Sheehan’s performance wasn’t worth a comment?

    Comment by Bill — November 30, 2009 at 2:24 pm

  2. While the musical aspects were first-rate, I found the concept and stage direction confusing and distracting.

    I came fresh and open-minded to the performance. If one had to attend a lecture or watch a promotional video to understand the concept, then it has failed. The second act, with fewer distractions, flowed much better than the first.

    Comment by Phyllis — November 30, 2009 at 5:00 pm

  3. a wonderful review of a very beautiful production – though it’s worth emphasizing that paul o’dette and stephen stubbs did not only head the instrumental ensemble, but were very much responsible for all the musical aspects, as musical directors of the production.

    Comment by REM — December 2, 2009 at 6:35 pm

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