29 Nov 2013
Early Opera Company: Acis and Galatea
Acis and Galatea was one of Handel’s most popular works, frequently revived in his life time and beyond.
At this start of the year, Classical Opera embarked upon an ambitious project. MOZART 250 will see the company devote part of its programme each season during the next 27 years to exploring the music by Mozart and his contemporaries which was being written and performed exactly 250 years previously.
The Concordia Foundation was founded in the early 1990s by international singer and broadcaster Gillian Humphreys, out of her ‘real concern for building bridges of friendship and excellence through music and the arts’.
An opera dealing with — or at least claiming to deal with — the events of 11 September 2001? I suppose it had to come, but that does not necessarily make it any more necessary.
On April 10, 2015, Arizona Opera ended its season with La Fille du Régiment at Phoenix Symphony Hall. A passionate Marie, Susannah Biller was a veritable energizer bunny onstage. Her voice is bright and flexible with a good bloom on top and a tiny bit of steel in it. Having created an exciting character, she sang with agility as well as passion.
This second revival of Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser’s 2005 production of Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia seems to have every going for it: excellent principals comprising experienced old-hands and exciting new voices, infinite gags and japes, and the visual éclat of Agostino Cavalca’s colour-bursting costumes and Christian Fenouillat’s sunny sets which evoke the style, glamour and ease of La Dolce Vita.
English Touring Opera’s 2015 Spring Tour is audacious and thought-provoking. Alongside La Bohème the company have programmed a revival of their acclaimed 2013 production of Donizetti’s The Siege of Calais (L’assedio di Calais) and the composer’s equally rare The Wild Man of the West Indies (Il furioso all’isola di San Domingo).
Mary Zimmerman’s still-fresh production is made fresher still by Shagimuratova’s glimmering voice, but the acting disappoints
When WNYC’s John Schaefer introduced Meredith Monk’s beloved Panda Chant II, which concluded the four-and-a-half hour Meredith Monk & Friends celebration at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, he described it as “an expression of joy and musicality” before lamenting the fact that playing it on his radio show could never quite compete with a live performance.
This year’s concert of the Chicago Bach Project, under the aegis of the Soli Deo Gloria Music Foundation, was a presentation of the St. John Passion (BWV 245) at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park.
It is not an everyday opera. It is an opera that illuminates a larger verismo history.
On March 26, 2015, Los Angeles Opera presented Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro). The Ian Judge production featured jewel-colored box sets by Tim Goodchild that threw the voices out into the hall. Only for the finale did the set open up on to a garden that filled the whole stage and at the very end featured actual fireworks.
Gotham Chamber Opera’s latest project, The Tempest Songbook, continues to explore the possibilities of unconventional spaces and unconventional programs that the company has made its hallmark. The results were musically and theatrically thought-provoking, and left me wanting more.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
Acis and Galatea was one of Handel’s most popular works, frequently revived in his life time and beyond.
This vibrant, stylish performance by the Early Opera Company, under the direction of Christian Curnyn, left us in no doubt as to why it was one of the few of Handel’s large-scale works to remain popular after the composer’s death. As the drama swiftly unfolded, the stream of glorious melodies rang forth one after the other, spanning the full dramatic gamut from elation to despair, from fury to resignation.
The first performance of the work in 1718 was a private one, at James Brydges’ elegant house, Cannons, where Handel had been fortunate to gain employment following the closure of the King’s Theatre in 1717. Described as a ‘masque’, Acis and Galatea is typical of the short works on pastoral or mythological subjects which represented a home-grown ‘rejoinder’ in the face of the increasing public taste for Italian opera during the early eighteenth century.
The libretto — which was probably co-authored by John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes — is drawn from Dryden’s translation of the thirteenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which appeared in London in 1717. It depicts a romance which unites earthly and immortal realms. The sea nymph Galatea is pining for her beloved, Acis; unbeknown to her, the young shepherd is simultaneously searching for her, anxious to be reunited with his cherished Galatea. The rational, worldly-wise Damon warns Acis that he is neglecting his duties, but the impetuous shepherd heeds not his friend, and eventually the lovers are reunited. However, the arrival of the love-struck monster Polyphemus soon spoils the celebrations, for the giant demands that Galatea transfer her affections to himself; when she refuses and Acis rises in fury against the giant, Polyphemus crushes Acis to death under a boulder. Distraught, Galatea is reminded of her divine powers: she transforms the dead Acis into a stream, thus granting him immortality.
Christian Curnyn launched into the overture with verve, the dynamic, animated playing of the instrumentalists setting the high standard of playing that was sustained throughout the evening and establishing a gripping dramatic momentum. Ensemble was exemplary, and the stylish execution, full of intensity but always elegant, was impressive, as the players painted an Arcadian scene.
The influence of Purcell, especially Dido and Aeneas, is evident in the way in which the chorus is intimately involved in the drama. On the rather crowded Wigmore Hall platform, the five singers were seated behind the instrumentalists, forming a well-blended chorus from which they emerged to take their solo roles, thereby both participating in and reflecting on the action.
The opening chorus instituted the mood of Arcadian serenity, the five voices intermingling with ease and simplicity, initially creating a sense of breadth, before the introduction of some relaxed counterpoint and points of imitation. In contrast, ‘Wretched lovers!’, which commences Act 2 was full of foreboding, and in the unaccompanied lament, ‘Mourn all ye muses’, sung over the body of the slain Acis, the consort of voices was touching but not sentimental, particularly at the line, ‘The gentle Acis is no more’.
The soloists were uniformly excellent.
As Galatea, Sophie Bevan produced a luscious Italianate cantilena, her gorgeous tone resonating sensuously throughout the hall. In ‘Hush ye pretty warbling choir’, her nimble vocal line melded sweetly with the sopranino recorder and upper strings. Handel’s technical challenges presented no problem for Bevan: trills were neat, ornaments not excessive. The recitative which precedes her aria of mourning, ‘Heart, the seat of soft desire’, was poignant, and her subsequent earnest command, ‘Rock, thy hollow womb disclose! The bubbling fountain!’ consoling; while the line ‘Lo! it flows’, suggested a touchingly hesitant joy. In this final aria, the sparkling treble recorders of Ian Wilson and Hannah McLaughin, accompanied by mellifluous, undulating strings, wonderfully evoked the magic of the fountain into which Acis has metamorphosed.
Robert Murray demonstrated a lovely sense of line as Acis. He made much of what is essential quite a weak role dramatically, combining passion and lyricism, both assertive and elegant. ‘Where shall I seek the maiden fair?’ was full of the naïve haste of youth; in the second Act, Murray skilfully suggested the shepherd’s growing emotional maturity, shaping the dynamic rises in ‘Love sounds th'alarm’ with intelligence and craftsmanship. His penetrating melody was gratifyingly complemented by Katharina Spreckelsen superb oboe playing.
As Damon, Samuel Boden’s graceful, light tenor provided a pleasing contrast to Murray’s more ardent tone. Boden captured well Damon’s composure and wisdom; ‘Consider, fond Shepard’, in which he attempts to quell Acis’s jealous anger had elegance and presence. Boden sang with sweet, refined tone, especially in an eloquent ‘Consider, fond shepherd’. ‘Would you gain the tender creature’ — an appeal to Polyphemus to essay a gentler line of seduction — would surely have charmed anyone but this unfeeling brute.
To lose one villain was unfortunate, but to lose two could have been potentially disastrous, had Matthew Rose not been available to step into the breach when first Derek Welton, and then his replacement Ashley Riches, were unable to perform the role of Polyphemus. From his first utterance, ‘I rage, I melt, I burn’, Rose filled the auditorium with a rich and profoundly satisfying sound.
Both fearsome and grotesque, in this opening accompanied recitative and throughout the opera he conveyed the essential complexity of the role: are we supposed to laugh at the lovelorn ogre whose gauche compliments and endearments fail to impress, or to protest at his vicious, petulant cruelty which shatters the lovers’ harmony? Probably both; and, in the following aria, ‘O ruddier than the cherry’, Rose conveyed the immensity of the Cyclopean monster’s burning love for Galatea and his fiery hatred for Acis.
Ian Wilson’s delightfully sprightly recorder obbligato reminded us of Ovid’s humorous depiction of Polyphemus as a ferocious goliath who plays an outsized set of shepherd’s pipes! Polyphemus is the dramatic catalyst, disrupting the Elysian bliss, and Rose’s ferocious interjections in the peaceful duet, ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains’, brutally shattered the lovers’ calm avowals of constancy and steadfastness. Curnyn and his performers were justifiably radiant as they acknowledged the appreciative and heartfelt applause. This was a fantastic, engaging performance with not a single weak link. A fabulous evening.
Cast and production information:
Robert Murray, tenor (as Acis); Sophie Bevan, soprano (as Galatea); Samuel Boden, tenor (as Damon); Matthew Rose, baritone (as Polyphemus); David de Winter, tenor (as Coridon); Christian Curnyn, director, harpsichord. Wigmore Hall, London, 27th November 2013.