OPERA REVIEW Love and Loss in Arcadia

A Breathtaking Version of Handel’s ‘Acis and Galatea’

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Teresa Wakim as Galatea and Douglas Williams as Polyphemus perform Acis and Galatea, one of Handel’s operas, as part of the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Opera Series.
Courtesy of David Walker

Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Opera

Jordan Hall, Boston, MA

November 28, 2009

Of the fifteen books of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of Acis and Galatea occupies less than two hundred lines of a single book: the mortal Acis and the nymph Galatea are in love, but the cyclops Polyphemus (yes, that Polyphemus, the one from the Odyssey; he, like most everything else, also has a back-story) is in love with Galatea too. As these things go, Galatea rebukes him and Polyphemus, understandably upset, expresses his rage in the only way he knows how: he crushes Acis with a boulder. Ovid completes the metamorphic tale on a light note, where Galatea, in her grief, immortalizes her lover by turning him into a river. The story, the plot all imitate dozens of others in the work, enough so that it seems like this one was another in a series of filler material Ovid had prepared to pad his tome.

But triviality, it seems, is what great works take for their fodder and George Frederick Handel’s 1718 setting of Ovid’s story was poised to become just that. James Brydges (recently remarried to the wealthy Cassandra Willoughby) spared no expense on Acis and Galatea, the last opera Handel would write for private commission: the libretto was written by John Gay and to a lesser extent, John Hughes and Alexander Pope (authors who manage to torture high school students to this day); the music, was exclusively written by Handel who was gaining considerable celebrity on the London stage.

Under the stage direction of Gilbert Blin, Saturday evening’s performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea by the Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Opera Series set Arcadia in Brydges’s parlor and featured members of this cast of eighteenth-century celebrity as players in Handel’s setting of the work. Jordan Hall’s magnificent ornamental stage hosted a player stage Saturday evening littered with a chamber orchestra receiving music and notes from none other than Handel, who would later play the part of the shepherd Damon. John Gay and the disfigured Alexander Pope, later to play the shepherd Corydon and the cyclops Polyphemus, respectively, were there too, scribbling notes throughout the entire performance. All these characters were neatly framed around the lovers James Brydges, as Acis, and Cassandra Willoughby, as Galatea.

In addition to the exciting cognitive dissonances presented in the setting, Saturday’s performance presented other exciting features. The action unfolded with Douglas Williams, as Polyphemus, attempting to seduce Teresa Wakim (stepping in for the billed Amanda Forsythe) as Galatea with a ravishing recitation of one of Pope’s own pastoral poems (Handel had already set parts of this poem in his opera Semele). As Polyphemus was rebuked and the two parted ways, the ensemble cracked into a dizzying performance of the overture, baptizing an intensely exciting evening of music: tenor Aaron Sheehan as the love-lorn James Brydges/Acis produced a dramatic and well rounded sound, an apt counterpoint to soprano Teresa Wakim as the equally smitten Cassandra Willoughby/Galatea who graced the stage with a sparkling, flexible instrument. Douglas Williams as Alexander Pope/Polyphemus, although sometimes appearing destabilized while negotiating the drama of the work, was regardless impeccable in his vocal technique filling the space with rich circles of deeply satisfying sound.

It was a pity not to hear more from Damon and Corydon; tenor Jason McStoots, as Handel/Damon, initially produced a somewhat stilted, stiff sound that remained largely agnostic to Handel’s melismatic passages. McStoots later came into the role during his second act air Consider, fond Shepard, where his satin tone inveighed the full brute force of reason against Polyphemus’s rage.

Tenor Zachary Wilder, as Gay/Corydon, was clearly the hidden talent of Saturday evening’s performance. Every Handel opera seems to have this solitary moments of pathos: after Polyphemus, just finished fuming over rejected love, storms in a d minor aria (Cease to Beauty to be suing), it is Corydon, composed voice of conciliation, that enters in a subtle F major air (Would you gain the tender Creature). The movement is arresting in its contrast — a juxtaposition of rage and reason, of conviction and pathos that makes Handel not only the composer he is, but also a supreme dramatist. It is incredibly difficult to describe Wilder’s achievement at this point in the opera: how easy to over-sing, to trample on the delicate construction Handel consummates. And although Wilder’s radiant tone was successful in delivering the aria, it was in the intellectual treatment of the moment that where he achieved noteworthy greatness: in addition to his considerable abilities as a musician, it was the attenuated drama steeped with subtle tones of nostalgia that brought the complexities of this moment home.

The same can be said, in general, of Saturday’s performance of Acis and Galatea. Ensemble work was impeccable, stamped and sealed by the unmistakable thumbprint of accomplished musicians. But it was the minutiae that made the work noteworthy. Translating eighteenth century sensibilities to the modern era is difficult and often leads to ruin; aesthetics change and ideas on performance practice are almost always inconstant. But framing the drama in the context of real-life characters is more than clever, it makes the work obtainable; that, yes, though pastorals are somewhat awkward constructions for various feats of literature, it’s easy to forget that the drama, the action, the emotions that are portrayed there are very real things that motivate thoughts and actions in the modern world.

Saturday’s performance was preceded by a pre-concert lecture by Ellen Harris, an informed analysis and survey of the history of Handel’s work. Boston Early Music Festival continues its season on January 30, with a performance by the Icelandic ensemble Sequentia.