IN: News & Features

Acis and Galatea by Handel, Mozart and Morris


Nicholas McGegan
Nicholas McGegan

Handel and Haydn performs with Mark Morris Dance Group for the first time since 1996 in a Celebrity Series of Boston presentation of the new, fully staged production of Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s opera, Acis & Galatea, by director and choreographer Mark Morris and the Mark Morris Dance Group. Celebrated visual artist and scenic designer Adrianne Lobel, fashion icon and costume designer Isaac Mizrahi, and acclaimed lighting designer Michael Chybowski will set the stage for this epic tale set along the banks of the Mediterranean Sea. The show runs from Thursday through Sunday at the Shubert Theater. Ticket information is here.

Conductor Nicholas McGegan agreed to answer some questions for BMInt.

BMInt: In 1788, W.A. Mozart arranged Acis and Galatea for patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Van Swieten sought to revive the Baroque style by commissioning new arrangements of older works to be played at his weekly salons in Vienna. Mozart arranged Acis and Galatea in the classical style of the day. He added second violin, woodwind, viola, and bassoon parts and re-wrote the oboe solos for clarinet. The clarity of Mozart’s arrangement emphasized the dynamics and phrasing of the melodic line. Boston audiences are quite familiar with Baroque style, so why not use the Handel original?

N.McG.: Mark Morris is a great fan of the Mozart version, as am I. (I’ve also recorded the Mendelssohn version too.) Handel’s original was designed for solo players and singers and was done in a private (if palatial) house. Both later versions are designed for larger scale performances than Handel’s original, so are better for performance in a modern theatre. If the Handel original were a black & white movie, then the Mozart would be a colorization but the Mendelssohn is a remake!

Is there any connection between Lully’s 1686 Acis et Galatée and Handel’s 1718 Acis and Galatea?

Musically, no. Obviously they all depart from the tale told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. But Lully and Handel wrote different works.

Did Handel’s 1708 cantata, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, influence the pastoral opera he wrote a decade later?

There is only one movement of the Italian Serenata which Handel borrows for his English version. Also the singers’ voices are different—in the Italian version, Acis is a soprano and Galatea a mezzo.

How did the McGegan-Morris collaborations begin? What was the first?

I conducted the US premières of Mark’s Dido and Aeneas (premièred at Théâtre Varia, Brussels, 1989; U.S. première at Boston’s Emerson Majestic Theatre the same year) and L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (premièred at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Brussels, 1988; U.S. première Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1990) and have done them many times since. I worked on Platée with Mark for Covent Garden and the Edinburgh Festival (1997). So together we have worked on danced settings to music by Purcell, Handel, and Rameau.

Mark is tremendously inspiring to work with and he’s a terrific musician. In fact he has conducted my orchestra in his “Dido.”

You have quite a cast of singers, seemingly drawn from a variety of locations. Thomas Cooley (tenor; Acis) seems more familiar to West Coast audiences as does Douglas Williams (baritone; Polyphemus); Sherezade Panthaki (soprano; Galatea) and Zach Finkelstein (tenor; Damon) have both appeared in New York. How did you locate this cast, and was it difficult to get everyone together for rehearsals?

We rehearsed in New York before putting the finishing touches on this production in Berkeley, California (where it had its world première). Douglas Williams and Sherry Panthaki both studied at Yale and Tom Cooley lives there. Tom spent a decade in Germany before returning to the US. All of the soloists sing on both coasts but perhaps not in Boston. Zach Finkelstein is from Massachusetts but currently lives in Washington State. So we juggled schedules to bring everyone together.

Are these singers more operatic or early music specialists?

They are both.

Acis and Galetea in San Francisco
Acis and Galetea in San Francisco

The West Coast world premiere has the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra playing, while in the East Coast premiere in Boston the Handel and Haydn Society orchestra will perform. Is it difficult to change from one orchestra to the other? And which will travel for the upcoming New York City and Kansas City performances?

Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra gave the première and will do the Lincoln Centre performances in August. In Kansas City and Champaign/Urbana we will use local musicians for the orchestra. I have no problem changing orchestras; in fact some of the musicians playing in Handel & Haydn here in Boston played in Philharmonia last week.

The costuming and staging look to be modern. So will this be a study in contrasts between the historically inflected music and the modern staging, maybe something like Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film, “Marie Antoinette,” which people either loved or hated?

Mark has a lot to say about the staging on his YouTube interview [here], and one can see some of the Boston rehearsal [here]. Or better yet, come see the performance and decide for yourself!

Indeed! Thank you, Maestro McGegan, for your time.


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

  1. I have heard the excellent Douglas Williams at least three or four times in Boston over the past year or so, in early music performances. I’ve mentioned him to friends and had begun to consider him a fine Boston staple, like Aaron Sheehan and Amanda Forsythe (though of course they sing elsewhere as well). How odd to read that he “seems more familiar to West Coast audiences.”

    Comment by Alan Levitan — May 11, 2014 at 10:08 pm


    Comment by E. RINGER — May 19, 2014 at 9:10 am

  3. Wait…did the person above me really just say that, even after this weeks news in music criticism? Really?

    Comment by Ian Pomerantz — May 23, 2014 at 7:34 pm

  4. Ian Pomerantz was placing E. Ringer’s remark on a singer’s physiognomy in the context of the recent British brouhaha here:

    One of the accused critics responded here:

    What do we think? Well, would it be okay to refer to a svelte soprano or a massive basso? Ringer’s characterization may have been lazy and unkind, but a discussion of of actors’ appearances should not be taboo.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — May 24, 2014 at 1:01 pm

  5. It will be worth consulting Opera News ( June 2014 when that issue is made available on line. An interview with Speight Jenkins, retiring General Manager of Opera Seattle, asks SJ “How important are singers’ looks?” and “Do you still speak to singers at auditions who have weight problems?” His answers (too long to quote fully here) are “…about a hundred percent more important than when I started.” and “Always.”

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 25, 2014 at 9:46 am

  6. In the Strauss case the argument or whatever it is wanted really to be about appearance and role suitability, always fair points, not Jenkins’s concerns. But the ungenerous tactlessness of some of the Brit reviewers quickly took it off point. Some (a few) of the comments responding to the rebuttal piece actually are worth thinking about, I found.

    Comment by David Moran — May 25, 2014 at 1:13 pm

  7. What’s odd is that Erraught is actually quite attractive, but made to look dumpy in the female costume. She may be less tall and lithe than many other Octavians, but there’s no reason that couldn’t fit with the drama.

    Comment by Camilli — May 25, 2014 at 4:50 pm

  8. Not only attractive but hardly heavy, by anyone’s standards today, and moreso by singer standards. It chiefly seemed like something attentive editing could’ve easily prevented/fixed (said the editor).

    Comment by David Moran — May 25, 2014 at 8:01 pm

  9. Kiri Te Kanawa anticipated Camilli’s observation. There are several links; search Google for
    “Erraught Te Kanawa” to read them.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — May 26, 2014 at 9:24 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, this comment forum is now closed.