Opera / The Berkshire Review in Boston

Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Boston Early Music Festival

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Teresa Wakim ad Galatea and Aaron Sheehan as Acis. Photo David Walker 2009.
Teresa Wakim as Galatea and Aaron Sheehan as Acis. Photo David Walker 2009.

George Frideric Handel,
Acis and Galatea, 1718 Version
Jordan Hall
Saturday, June 18, 2011

Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs – Musical Directors
Gilbert Blin – Stage Director
Anna Watkins – Costume Designer
Robert Mealy – Orchestra Leader
Kathleen Fay – Executive Producer
Abbie H. Katz – Associate Producer
Melinda Sullivan – Assistant to the Stage Director

Aaron Sheehan – Acis
Teresa Wakim – Galatea
Jason McStoots – Damon
Douglas Williams – Polyphemus
Michael Kelley –  Coridon

Even before Handel’s sinfonia was very far along, I found myself deeply immersed in the human activity I observed on the stage of Jordan Hall. Around the orchestra, who were dressed in unobtrusive modern black, some half dozen creatures of Queen Anne’s day, or, more precisely, early Hanoverian days, busied themselves about a capacious drawing-room, until five of them came together to sing the opening chorus, “Oh the pleasure of the plains,” evoking the landscape around Cannons. Actually they were looking into a pastoral landscape painting, its back to the audience. (At the end it was turned to reveal the composition.) While pictures were brought in and set on an easel for appreciation and perhaps purchase—the absence of a permanently hung gallery suggested that the house was not yet finished—two gentlemen at either end of the stage worked away at writing: one, Mr. Handel, was setting down notes, and the other—actually two, Mr. Gay and Mr. Pope—words. What was so absorbing about this was not so much the business itself, which is familiar enough even in early eighteenth century dress, but the mood. While Handel, Gay, and Co. seemed intent mainly on getting their jobs done right, there was something less down-to-earth about the dignified and beautiful lady of the house, who seemed to be yearning for something that she was trying to materialize from the paintings and the pastoral music, in which she participated, while winding her way through her attachments to the young man who was to become Acis and the rather moody fellow who became Polyphemus, the Cyclops. As in the early days of modern European theater, Anna Watkins’ splendid costumes did the work of sets in transforming the already quite suitable stage of Jordan Hall into a space that suggested an English country house, but it was this sense of urgent desire to create another mode of existence, something simpler, more peaceful and more harmonious, that brought one into the situation.

In this stage director Gilbert Blin has created for us the world of Cannons, one of the most ambitious country estates ever conceived, the brainchild of James Brydges, who amassed a fortune as paymaster of the British army in the War of the Spanish Succession (Queen Anne’s War to Americans) and rose from a baronetcy to a dukedom. In 1718, he was midway, as Earl of Carnarvon. The grounds and the house were enormous, still under construction at the time, when George Frideric Handel lived there as Brydges’ composer-in-residence. The house was close enough to London, so that Brydges could actively pursue his affairs at court, but he thought of it as a retreat on the grandest scale, a pastoral Gesamtkunstwerk, which housed his important library and considerable art collections. The most prominent architects of the time, Vanbrugh, Talman, and Gibbs, among others, were at one time or another involved in the project. Brydges devoted equal, if not more attention to the landscaping of the vast grounds, which included landscapes created in various styles, but, above all, elaborate waterworks. Brydges went to great expense to have water channelled in to feed the spectacular fountains he had built. Water seems to have occupied the very core of his imagination.

One can only sympathize warmly with Gilbert Blin’s surpassing enthusiasm for the environment in which Handel’s early masterpiece took shape. Water is central to Acis and Galatea as well. With the cave-dwelling monster’s killing of Acis with a boulder, and Acis’ triumphant metamorphosis into the Sicilian river which flowed by Mount Etna, it seems a struggle between the elements of earth and water and in particular whatever may have been associated with them, for instance, words and music.

Aaron Sheehan as the transformed Acis. Photo David Walker 2009.
Aaron Sheehan as the transformed Acis. Photo David Walker 2009.

Unlike the other chamber operas staged by BEMF in its still-young and most commendable program, Acis and Galatea was almost certainly performed as a cantata, without dramatic action, but conceivably with costumes and props, perhaps, most significantly, from M. Blin’s point of view, one of the great water displays on the grounds, which may have been turned on when Acis makes his triumphant return as a river-god. Blin calls the work a masque. The myth brought together many of the patron’s interests into a synaesthetic whole: Ovid, paintings (in particular Claude Lorrain), the pastoral (in his gardens), and his waterworks. In this treatment, Gay, Hughes, Pope and whoever else from the circle may contributed to the libretto have adapted Ovid’s tale into an encomium of Cannons and its waterworks, as well as a querelle between words and music. In praising Acis the chorus honors the genius loci of Cannons.

M. Blin stresses that the Cannons performance was not acted out, and the BEMF production follows this in that the participants wear their ordinary clothes until the end, when the deified Acis appears in elaborate allegorical garb, which expresses his superhuman status as well as his assimilation with the water of his eponymous river. Nor are there any sets, although the procession of famous paintings (by artists known to have been in Brydges’ collection—Giorgione, Titian, Claude, Poussin—but not necessarily the ipsissima opera that Brydges actually owned) function handsomely as an ideal setting, which leads us into the heart of the pastoral itself, finally in no less grand a form than Poussin’s “Et in Arcadia Ego…” now in the Louvre. On the other hand the story of Acis and Galatea is quite vividly acted, if not systematically as a representation of the story. The singers all pass fluidly back and forth across an ambiguous line which separates the lives of the patrons and the artists from the Arcadian world so elaborately striven for in the construction of Cannons. I should add that there was also a silent character, a nymph (the Italian soprano Margherita de l’Épine?), portrayed most eloquently in pantomime—not dance—by Melinda Sullivan.

Zachary Wilder, Melinda Sullivan, and Jason McStoots. Photo David Walker 2009.
Zachary Wilder, Melinda Sullivan, and Jason McStoots. Photo David Walker 2009.

This is clearly an extremely sophisticated adaptation of Handel’s work, a highly personal invention of Gilbert Blin—his own Ariadne auf Naxos, if you will—but one true to the allegorical way of understanding performances that was current through the Baroque. Brydges and his guests would have easily understood the layers of meaning beneath the surface, but we, aided by M. Blin, must look at it differently: we can, in fact must, observe the Brydges coterie from without, as we witness this free reenactment of its first performance, which is in fact so informal that seems to be more of a rehearsal than a performance.

Since its first performance in November 2009, BEMF have performed Acis and Galatea numerous times. By now the singers and the orchestra have made the music and the action so much their own that they perform with total assurance in all aspects of the production: the complex gestures and interaction among the singers as well as the music itself and its inflection. One senses something beyond total confidence, rather a passion about Handel’s music, the elegant libretto, and their reincarnation through the powerful imagination of Gilbert Blin. Apart from its own virtues, it seems that it has functioned within BEMF as a laboratory for their performance style, in which the elements of Baroque theater scholars gleaned through study are applied to a performance intended for modern audiences in such a way that they can experience complex and subtle meanings and expression as directly as the original audiences. In observing the letter, BEMF cultivates the spirit. It has been said generally by critics and by members of the public that this year’s main opera, Steffani’s Niobe, Regina di Tebe, is a triumphant advance in BEMF’s overall performance technique. I hesitate to endorse this opinion, because earlier operatic productions have been so excellent, but it is true to some degree, and Acis and Galatea may well have been the vehicle of this progress.

All of the singers were at the top of their form. Teresa Wakim’s voice was warm and rich, but flexible enough to render the subtlest inflections and most brilliant ornamentation. Aaron Sheehan gave an ardent performance as Acis, balancing most effectively the warmth of his tenor voice and its bright surface, which served him well, in both the more lyrical and the more ornamented parts. Douglas Williams used the dark, leathery depths of his lowest register to portray the monstrosity of his character, showing a fairly subtle wit in his characterization that never descended into broad comedy. As Damon, Jason McStoots sang with his usual impeccably produced and articulated tenor, as well as his fine sense of comic business. Michael Kelley also dealt ably with the smaller part of Coridon. The five singers joined together for the choruses, which benefitted not only from the vibrant color, flexibility, and clarity of a small group of soloists, but also from the subtle passing inflections in phrase and vocal color possible in this way. The results were nothing short of amazing in the opening chorus of the second act, “Wretched lovers!” As a vocal quintet this music can achieve its full expressiveness and seems to stand respectably beside its great counterparts in the Marriage of Figaro and Die Meistersinger. The incomparable BEMF Orchestra, led by Stephen Stubbs, Paul O’Dette, and Robert Mealy, played with their characteristic inner unanimity and sensitive ear for each other and the singers.

In my review of the premiere of this production in 2009 I expressed some reservations about the elaborate conceit behind the production and the vigorous activity on stage. Now, I’m happy to admit that I didn’t “get it” at the time. I don’t think it was entirely my own obtuseness, because the action has been simplified and perfected over repeated performances, perhaps subtly, and its point comes across more effectively. A program note has also been added, to spell out the aims of the production. This time I also had the benefit of attending Ellen T. Harris’ richly informative pre-concert lecture. 2009 was only the second year of the chamber opera program, and my expectations were grounded in the 2008 double bill of Charpentier’s Actéon and Blow’s Venus and Adonis, which concentrated more straightforwardly on recreating a period performance. I was not prepared for the range and variety of BEMF’s creativity in the genre. I now understand what a brilliant tour de force BEMF has achieved in this production of Handel’s early masterpiece.

Nicolas Poussin, Arcadian shepherds ('Et in Arcadia Ego'), ca. 1650, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre Inv. 7300
Nicolas Poussin, Arcadian shepherds (
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