As if to top off the days of Thanksgiving indulgence before the inevitable return to such serious pursuits as work, school, and shopping, the Boston Early Music Festival offered a delicious bit of cerebral escapism in its production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea on Saturday at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. A revival of the 2009 production by Gilbert Blin and Melinda Sullivan, with costumes by Anna Watkins, the opera came to us again in the guise of a rehearsal in the picture room at Cannons, the country estate of Handel’s patrons, Lord and Lady Chandos. In this imaginary reenactment, Handel himself (tenor Jason McStoots) participated in the ensemble both as the shepherd Damon, and as the composer anxiously fretting over details of interpretation; the poet and librettist John Gay was the shepherd Coridon (tenor Mark Williams), and dancer Melinda Sullivan performed in a silent role as the Italian teacher Margherita de l’Épine. The principal roles of Acis (tenor Aaron Sheehan) and Galatea (soprano Teresa Wakim) were taken by the lord and lady of the house. None other than poet and co-librettist Alexander Pope (bass-baritone Douglas Williams) appeared as the ever-threatening Polyphemus. Like all the other participants, he was dressed in sumptuous court garb, recognizable as the giant one-eyed Cyclops only by an eye patch in addition to his striking height.
Handel had already made his name in opera for public venues in Germany, Italy, and London when he entered the service of Henry James Brydges, Earl of Canarvon (later Duke of Chandos) as resident composer in the summer of 1717. Acis and Galatea, his first dramatic work in English, was composed in May 1718 to texts by John Gay and others after Ovid’s Metamorphoses xiii. According to Gilbert Blin’s notes for Saturday’s performance, it was intended to be performed as a private entertainment, a one-act serenata in front of a theater set showing a picturesque rural prospect. In Blin’s re-imagining, this “set” was represented by a large painting of an Arcadian landscape with figures, of the kind assiduously collected by the Duke of Chandos and his third wife, Cassandra,. The small forces called for in Acis and Galatea probably reflect the ensemble available to Handel at Cannons. In Saturday’s performance, all five solo singers also sang in the small chorus that commented on the action. The on-stage instrumental ensemble consisted of Robert Mealy (concertmaster) and Cynthia Roberts, violins, Phoebe Carrai, cello, Doug Balliett, double bass, Gonzalo Ruiz and Kathryn Montoya, oboist, both doubling on recorders, and Dominic Teresi, bassoon. Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, Paul O’Dette, archlute, and Stephen Stubbs, Baroque guitar and English theorbo, completed the continuo group.
If much of the music sounded familiar, it probably was. “O ruddier than the cherry,” sung with proper bluster by Douglas Williams as Polyphemus, was a spoof on the basso buffo operatic aria. Faced with death, Acis countered with a heroic aria, “Love sounds th’alarm,” obbligato oboes standing in for martial trumpets. Aaron Sheehan displayed a fine range of tone colors here, from ringing high notes to a darker low range. The motet-like choruses, particularly “Mourn all ye muses” in Act II, recalled the eloquence of “With drooping wings ye cupids come” that closes Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Another highlight was the Trio in which Acis and Galatea declare their eternal love in sinuous harmony while Polyphemus blusters in stentorian tones below. With no fewer than twelve da capo arias, in which the first section is repeated after a contrasting middle section, Handel managed to treat this time-honored structure with astounding variety. Galatea’s opening aria “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!” calls on the birds to bring back her lost Acis. During the entire first section, the two violins and recorder warbled away in birdlike trills, only to drop out entirely in the middle section. Here the solo voice supplied its own bird-like warblings, accompanied only by the continuo instruments. In the da capo return, the soprano vied with the instruments in improvised ornamentation: no one would have expected to hear the same music performed twice in the same way. Teresa Wakim has mastered the technique of ornamentation so that her melodic excursions always sounded tasteful, virtuosic but never empty flourishes, and the same can be said for the other soloists. In a stern recitative and aria, Damon (Handel) warns Acis of the dangers of love. Here Jason McStoots was in full comic form, his sharply-defined disjunct melody in pompous dialogue with the violins over a walking bass, culminating in an extravagant and skillfully executed roulade on the word “pleasure.” More warbling and cooing ensued in arias by Acis and Galatea, until they were united in the hornpipe-like “Happy We” that preceded the intermission.
The second part opened with a five-voice motet in sustained notes that suddenly broke into the kind of rapid word painting that we know from Handel’s oratorio choruses. Polyphemus arrived. The monster’s clumsy attempts at courtship having failed, Coridon suggested a more gentle approach. Tenor Mark Williams delivered the shepherd’s aria with lilting grace and finesse. In a jealous rage, Polyphemus felled Acis with a stone, killing him immediately. Following their beautiful chorus of mourning, the shepherds implore Galatea to cease her grieving; she is urged to exert her powers and return Acis to the gods. Galatea having worked her magic, Acis returns to the stage after a quick change, resplendent in watery blue and transformed into an immortal fountain.
Beyond mere pastoral entertainment, Handel depicted real human emotion through the medium of the not-quite-human gods with all their foibles and weaknesses. By allowing the music to speak for itself, avoiding coy or flippant attempts to update the action, the Boston Early Music Ensemble brought us an elegant rendition of one of Handel’s best-loved works. Nor do we omit our thanks for the fine program book that contains the complete libretto as well as several interesting and informative articles.