The Berkeley Opera is on a roll. After the sensational mini-Ring produced earlier this season, they are now presenting Mark Streshinsky’s witty and piquant production of Acis and Galatea. This work by George Frideric Handel is a “pastoral masque.” It has been described variously as a “little opera,” not quite an oratorio, and an “entertainment.” Nevertheless, it is often performed as a fully staged two act opera, and has been in the repertory for the last two centuries. The text was adapted by John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes from Ovid’s Metamorphosis.
This is the first Handel opera presented by the Berkeley Opera in its 25-year history, and is a perfect choice for this small, artistically ambitious company. The supple and oftentimes sublime m usic that Handel has created for Ovid’s Book Thirteen—“Acis and Galatea”—from his collection of myths, is exquisitely rendered by conductor George Thomson and his carefully selected company of gifted singers and players. It is a joy to hear at last a fine, committed, and excellently prepared orchestra in the Berkeley Opera orchestra pit. Playing under concertmistress Carla Moore were Kati Kyme, Sara Usher (first violins), Lisa Weiss, Cary Koh, Michelle Dulak (second violins), Farley Pearce (cello), Michel Taddei (bass), Yueh Chou (bassoon), Louise Carlslake, Kit Higginson (recorder), Bennie Cottone, Peter Lemberg (oboe), and Jonathan Davis (harpsichord).
Were it to be done in period setting, the opera would look like a Poussin painting, in which a gather ing of nymphs and shepherds gambol about around a waterfall in an ancient ruin. Indeed, there is evidence that the work was performed first in 1718 as a courtly outdoor entertainment situated near a large fountain on the estate of the Earl of Carnavorn (later Duke of Chandos). What a great setting for the watery climax! As with other chapters from Ovid’s works, the theme is a transfiguration from mortal life to another of nature’s forms. Birds, wind, trees, and water are often the post-human repositories of identity in this enchanted realm where love conquers all, and resurrection as an enduring natural form is the vehicle for continued spiritual togetherness. In this case, Acis, after being slain by the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus, is transformed by his lover, the sea-nymph Galatea, into a fountain. “Purple be no more thy blood, glide thou like a crystal flood. ... The bubbling fountain, lo! It flows.” As a sea nymph, Galatea enjoys caressing herself in the water that is Acis himself, sans bodily parts.
The stage director and designer Mark Streshinsky morphs the work to the present day. He stages the action at the beach, with a picnic table set up for hot dogs on the barbeque, a life guard tower, some surf boards, and plenty of the other accoutrements of guys and gals having fun at the seashore. For those of us who experienced Mary Zimmerman’s unforgettable treatment at the Berkeley Rep of Ovid’s Metamorphosis set around a 16-foot pool, this resetting of the myth will not seem a startling approach, but rather another imaginative innovation. In an operatic version however, naturalistic acting style bumps up against the symmetrical music: The rigid formality of da capo arias and the production sometimes loses energy as the second or third stanzas are repe ated. (Maybe it was just a case of second night blahs.) Overall the ideas and execution were charming.
The climax comes when Polyphemus (here the bully on the beach), in a rage over being rebuffed by Galatea, wacks Acis with what looks like a twenty poun d barbell, (supposedly the “massy ruin”). Acis dies, but is transmogrified to his watery form with a good dousing under the lifeguard’s shower on the beach. “Galatea, dry thy tears, Acis now a god appears,” sings the well-honed five person ensemble-chorus consisting of Linh Kauffman, Elizabeth Eastman, Gary Ruschman, Alec Jeong, and Raymond Granlund, as they all dry off with beach towels.
The cast was well up to the musical challenges that singing Handel presents. Jeffrey Fields as Polyphemus gave a droll and powerful portrayal of the weight-hurling Cyclops; his comic aria “O Ruddier than a cherry” was a delight. Erin Neff’s (Damon) voice shone out in her lovely solos. The two good-looking lovers, Saundra De Athos (Galatea) and Harold Gray Meers (Acis), sang their idyllic music with great skill and beautiful tone, and both gave eloquent expression to the tragic moments in the drama.te