Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Handel’s Acis and Galatea in its 1718 Chamber Version, presented by The Boston Early Music Festival

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Aaron Sheehan as Acis and Teresa Wakim as Galatea. Photo courtesy of David Walker.
Aaron Sheehan as Acis and Teresa Wakim as Galatea. Photo courtesy of David Walker.

George Frideric Handel, Acis and Galatea
in the original 1718 chamber version

Saturday, November 28, 2009 at 8pm
New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin, Stage Director
Anna Watkins, Costume Designer
Robert Mealy, Orchestra Leader
Kathleen Fay, Executive Producer
Darren Brannon, Associate Producer
Melinda Sullivan, Assistant to the Stage Director

Aaron Sheehan – Acis
Teresa Wakim – Galatea
Jason McStoots – Damon
Douglas Williams – Polyphemus
Zachary Wilder – Coridon

The Boston Early Music Festival’s chamber opera series got off to a brilliant start last year with a double bill of John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon, and there was much anticipation for this year’s production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea in the version performed in 1718 at Cannons, the estate of James Brydges, soon to be awarded the title, Duke of Chandos, by which he is best known both to historians and to Handel enthusiasts. Some 45 years had passed since the first performances of Blow’s and Charpentier’s works, but this kind of entertainment, a partially-staged masque, or pastorale, was not yet outmoded in London, where its supporters defended the English tradition of Blow and Purcell against its critics, who favored Italian opera. For his then extremely wealthy patron, Handel was able to produce a simple, straightforward work of great beauty, which, although originally designed for private performance at Cannons, with its literary coterie, art collection, gardens, and waterworks, enjoyed a future as a more elaborately staged operatic performance.

BEMF’s purpose was to reproduce faithfully the 1718 performance at Cannons—its informal staging, as well as its simple musical forces: five singers doubling as chorus and a simple orchestra, in which the viola was omitted. The visual component of the production was limited to the sumptuous costumes familiar to BEMF opera audiences, and a few simple props. The splendid BEMF orchestra, led by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, with Robert Mealy as concertmaster, and all the singers were seasoned BEMF performers. (Teresa Wakim was more than equal to the task of replacing an indisposed Amanda Forsythe, who was originally cast as Galatea) All the ingredients for a brilliant evening were there on stage at Jordan Hall, and if not all aspects of the performance were successfully realized, if was not for the inadequacy of any member of the orchestra or cast.

Teresa Wakim’s buttery, perfectly integrated soprano was a joy to hear throughout the evening, and her phrasing and diction were impeccable (not to mention the fact that she looked truly wonderful in her costume). Aaron Sheehan’s very attractive, light, but well supported tenor was a pleasing, if discreet match. The two supporting tenors, Jason McStoots (Damon) and Zachary Wilder (Coridon) were well-differentiated from each other and from Mr. Sheehan, so that no trace of monotony appeared, and they delivered their admonitory airs with commitment and eloquence. Douglas Williams, bass, as would suit his role, the monster Polyphemus, sang with a markedly more powerful voice and showed a nice feeling for the intertwining of pathetic and comic aspects of the character. All the singers moved easily back and forth between their functions as soloists and as chorus, which is especially important in Acis, for the fine music Handel wrote for it, for its setting of the pastoral scene, and its consolatory role at the conclusion. One would not expect these early music specialists, singing with minimal vibrato, to display immense voices, but I felt that their overall tendency, especially in the first half, to blend into the instrumental sound, showed an excess of discretion, and detracted from their effect as singers and the vividness of their characterizations. This was more apparent before the intermission than after it, when everyone seemed to have relaxed a bit and were more deeply into the performance. From scene to scene they moved—not always with an immediately comprehensible reason—from the raised platform, which constituted the formal stage, and and area between the two halves of the orchestra towards the front of Jordan Hall’s stage. Both of these areas had spots where the singers stood out a little better from the ensemble, but this was largely a matter of chance.

I also found, notably in the overture and the first few numbers, the tempi to be somewhat relentless and rapid. A slightly easier pace and more flexibility would have given the individual instruments and voices more of a chance to blossom. This already began to improved before the intermission, but in the dramatic situations of the second half, and in Galatea’s melting lament it was no longer an issue at all.

Individual instrumentalists deserved special praise, especially Robert Mealy and oboist-recorder players Gonzalo X. Ruiz and Kathryn Montoya, who played the extravagant flageolet recorder accompaniment to Polyphemus’ air “O ruddier than the cherry!” with brilliant technique and characterization. These were particular delights in a highly accomplished and often elegant musical interpretation of this important and, in its time, extremely popular earlyish work of Handel. If the musicians had the benefit of two or more performances, it would surely have developed in to something even finer.

Unfortunately the audience, mostly in the first half of the evening, had to fight their way through to Ovid’s simple story and Handel’s music through a hyperactive buzz of distracting stage business, which started with the overture. Handel’s spirited, direct introduction seizes our attention and focuses it on the musical drama we are about to see and hear. The huddle of interested parties in the midst of all this seemed entirely counter-intuitive. At the edges of the stage were two desks at which librettists, copyists, and, it seems, Mr. Handel himself, raced to finish the book and music as the masque was underway. There was a constant stream of other business, including the carrying-in, unveiling, admiration, and discussion of paintings by Poussin and Claude. (It must be said, on the other hand, that a single Claude landscape on an easel makes a powerfully evocative backdrop.) This activity occasionally gels around a backstage love story about the unrequited passion of the bass for the soprano, which means that the singer who is to play Polyphemus in the second half is constantly fussing about the stage, as are Damon and Coridon, as well as a mysterious lady, who, apart from cutting a truly splendid figure, has no musical or dramatic function whatsoever. It is as if an educational pantomime about the creation and first performance of Acis and Galatea were intercut with the masque itself. There was much less of this in the second half, as Polyphemus turned things against the lovers, and Messrs. Williams, McStoots, and Wilder became engaged in their appointed activities on the stage.

It was clear, apart from it being highly unbelievable that Mr. Brydges and his Scriblerian friends suffered from ADD-like symptoms to such a post-modern degree, that the approach that was so successful last year for Blow and Charpentier proved entirely inappropriate for Handel. The reasons are apparent enough. There is a considerable difference in quality between the works. Handel wanted his audience to pay attention and follow his musical narrative, and he possessed the powers of accomplishing this, whatever behavior may have been acceptable at performances in those days. Today, almost three centuries later, Handel’s masque still has a basic power over us, and it needs no apology or explanation. One further difference is that the earlier works contained ballets and dances which invited the participation of the audience in a way Handel’s did not. Last year the spectacle provided by the larger cast of singers and dancers graciously accommodated M. Blin’s by-play. Historicism in performance practice is a powerful tool, but it is not universal, and its implementation requires discernment, especially if the material speaks to us as simply and as vitally as Acis and Galatea. In this case Gilbert Blin’s interpretive exuberance amounted to Regieoper, which has never seemed to be what BEMF is about. Critics specialize in hindsight, and the dismal science of rear vision is nothing to boast about. However, I have to say that BEMF’s rare misfire in this production should be valued as a lesson in restraint.

3 thoughts on “Handel’s Acis and Galatea in its 1718 Chamber Version, presented by The Boston Early Music Festival

  1. Fascinating review! I wish I had been there. I have heard such praise for the Boston Early Music Festival productions of operas, especially for their stylish realization of the musical components. If this production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea was visually over-busy, it won’t have been the first opera production nowadays to suffer from that trait.
    An interesting set of reflections on the problems of producing Baroque-era opera in the present day is found in the concluding chapter of Robert Ketterer’s immensely rich book Ancient Rome in Early Opera (University of Illinois Press, 2009). Ketterer argues that we often have trouble empathizing with–or even recognizing–the cultural values in Handel operas (such as generosity and self-sacrifice on the part of kings and military generals) and therefore insert visual distractions or anachronistic “subtexts” such as modern-day cynicism and social critique.
    Perhaps this is not quite relevant to Acis and Galatea, but the issues that Ketterer discusses seem to me well worth airing widely and debating in regard to Baroque opera (and opera generally!).

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