in: Reviews

June 20, 2011

Great Acis and Galatea, for Those in the Know

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On Saturday, June 18, the Boston Early Music Festival presented an encore of its 2009 semi-staged production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea. The two-act chamber opera, setting a libretto by John Gay that was written for performance at the Duke of Chandos’s country estate in Cannons, depicts the tragic love between the sea nymph Galatea (Teresa Wakim, soprano) and the shepherd Acis (Aaron Sheehan, tenor). The rather simple plot tells of the two lover’s long separation before they are joyfully reunited, only to have the jealous giant cyclops Polyphemus (Douglas Williams, baritone) murder Acis with a rock. In her mourning, and at the instigation of her friends, Galatea then immortalizes her deceased lover by turning him into an everlasting fountain.

As appropriate for Handel’s time, the opera is constructed from a string of da capo arias, five in each act, that provide the singers more than adequate space to demonstrate their skills — skills that the BEMF singers clearly have in abundance. Soprano Teresa Wakim sang magnificently with an intelligent interpretation of the dramatic situation that supported her startling displays of vocal technique. Similarly, Aaron Sheehan’s Acis was delightful; his light, polished and unforced tenor was a perfect complement to the part’s balance of lover and hero. However, Wakim and Sheehan’s performances reached their height when they sang together, as in the sparkling duet “Happy We” that ended the first act.

Balanced against these beautiful lovers, Douglas Williams’ tall, dark and eye-patched Polyphemus was quite terrifying. His menacing but silent stage presence throughout the pastoral first act made for a suspenseful build-up to his first numbers in the tragic second act. In his first recitative early in the second act “I Rage, I Melt” the effect was extraordinary. Specifically, after the opening chorus of Act Two (“Wretched Lovers”) in which the idea of the fallibility of happiness is introduced, Williams’ solo entrance in the lower register (the first in the opera) with his measured and powerful voice, forcefully embodied fate’s dreadful decree that “no joy shall last.” Obviously the moment owed much to Handel’s dramatic genius, but it took Williams’ virtuosic performance to pull it off. Finally, the dramatic climax was the trio “The Flocks Shall Leave the Mountains,” in which a proto-typical love duet between the title characters was interrupted by the murderous Polyphemus. The musical and dramatic contrast between title characters’ naive joy and Polyphemus’s growing rage was simply astonishing.

The choruses that frame both acts were all sung wonderfully — especially the homophonic “Mourn All Ye Muses” with its tangible Purcellian influence. Blin’s direction was also wonderful. In particular, having the singers “correct” the onstage ensemble’s scores with their quill pens provided a welcome levity during some of the longer repeat sections. Further, the ensemble itself, led by musical directors Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs was exquisite. In all it was a wonderful concert that I enjoyed immensely.

Unfortunately however, several members of the audience around me did not. As part of my preparation for this review I did some research concerning the opera’s plot, music and libretto — preparation that is generally not expected of a concert-going audience. And yet, in a move that only be ascribed to their ambition to sell as many of their $10 “yearbooks” as possible (which included the complete libretto), BEMF did not distribute the typical program book for the performance. Instead they handed out single-page flyers that listed only the performers and sponsors. Coupled with the lack of supertitles, this left too many of the audience members completely ignorant as to what was happening on the stage before them.  Despite the singers’ excellent diction, it is really rather difficult to make out a text in operatic performance — even if it is in English. Because of this several people left at intermission and I doubt that they will return next year.

Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.

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