Arts & Events

New: American Bach Soloists Perform Handel’s ACIS AND GALATEA

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday January 26, 2015 - 05:44:00 PM

George Friederic Handel’s chamber opera Acis and Galatea was first presented in 1717 as a masque, i.e., an aristocratic entertainment involving pantomime, dance, and song, at the English country estate, Cannons, of the man later known as Duke of Chandos. Based on a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Acis and Galatea is in the pastoral tradition, evoking the Arcadian world of shepherds, nymphs and mythological characters (such as Polyphemus, the famed one-eyed Cyclops). During Handel’s lifetime, Acis and Galatea was performed more often than any other of this composer’s dramatic works. 

Over the weekend of January 23-26, 2015, led by Music Director Jeffrey Thomas, American Bach Soloists performed Acis and Galatea at four different venues throughout the Bay Area. I caught the show on Saturday, January 24, at Berkeley’s First Congregational Church. Opening the evening was ABS playing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Fourth Brandenburg Concerto, composed in 1717 shortly after Bach took up the post of Kapellmeister in Anhalt-Köthen. The Fourth Brandenburg Concerto features two recorders, which carry on a dialogue with the first violin throughout the work. First violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock and recorder players Judith Linsenberg and Debra Nagy were outstanding, not only in the opening movement’s extensive ritornello but also in the second movement’s pensive mood, as well as in the third and final movement’s extensive fugal material. 

Following this Bach concerto, ABS moved on to another work from 1717, Handel’s brief two-act chamber opera Acis and Galatea. Performed by ABS in a concert version, with words by John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes, Acis and Galatea paints a delightful, if quite mannered, picture of pastoral life, to which Handel set outstanding music. After a lively Sinfonia, followed by the American Bach Chorus singing the praises of pastoral life, Galatea, a semi-divine sea-nymph, sings her first aria amidst warbling birdcalls evoked by violins and oboes. As Galatea, soprano Nola Richardson sang with gorgeous tone and fine clarity of diction, as she sighs over her love for the absent shepherd Acis. Meanwhile, Acis, sung by tenor Kyle Stegall, ponders where he might look for his beloved Galatea. Stegall, fresh from a fine performance with ABS in Handel’s Messiah at Grace Cathedral, has a clear high tenor voice with plenty of power.  

Damon, another shepherd, then cautions Acis not to become too enthralled with Galatea. Passion, he sings, may lead to ruin. Sung here by tenor Zachary Wilder, Damon establishes himself both as a voice of reason and also a bit of a killjoy. Needless to say, Acis ignores Damon’s advice. When Acis soon encounters his beloved, he sings a rapturous aria, “Love in her eyes sits playing.” 

Galatea then sings an aria once again evoking birdcalls as she likens herself, reunited with Acis, to a female dove reunited with her mate, billing and cooing the live-long day. Together, Acis and Galatea then begin the famous duet, “Happy we,” which is quickly taken up by the chorus, as Act I of Handel’s Acis and Galatea comes to a close. 

After intermission, the pastoral happiness of Act I is soon left behind, as the chorus warns that “no joy shall last.” Enter Polyphemus, the monstrous giant, who, as it happens, longs in vain for fair Galatea. Sung here by baritone Mischa Bouvier, Polyphemus bursts onstage with the words, “I rage –I melt – I burn!” Bouvier describes this accompanied recitative as “a bit of that wonderful Handelian coloratura on the word ‘ rage’. It starts quite low, but quickly rises to the top of the singer’s range.” Bouvier brought off this difficult passage in brilliant form. However, the efforts of Polyphemus to woo Galatea are hardly reciprocated; and the fair maid dismisses the giant in no uncertain terms. In response, Polyphemus blusters. But Damon, once again the voice of reason, cautions Polyphemus that in courting one must proceed softly, gently and kindly.  

Observing Polyphemus, Acis becomes enraged at the giant’s efforts to woo Galatea, and he readies himself to fight. However, Damon intervenes again with words of caution. Damon’s aria, “Consider, fond Shepherd,” is a nugget of philosophical advice. Tenor Zachary Wilder sang this aria beautifully, with subtle dynamic contrasts and occasional falsetto. Musically, this aria, like his previous aria counseling Polyphemus to woo softly, gently and kindly, is in a “call and response” pattern with the instrumental lines. Here the oboe echoes Damon’s musical lines. 

Now it is Galatea who rejects Damon’s advice. Love will win out, she proclaims. Galatea and Acis then launch a duet. “The flocks shall leave the mountain… ere I forsake my love,” which quickly becomes a trio as Polyphemus enters on a discordant note of anger. Mischa Bouvier describes this amazing trio as “almost Mozartian.” Indeed, in its conflicting emotions, this trio does evoke Mozart. Here, however, it leads to tragedy, as Polyphemus hurls a boulder and crushes Acis to death. Dying, Acis evokes Hades in a soft, descending passage. Now the chorus sings a mournful lament for gentle Acis. Galatea joins the chorus in mourning; but the chorus urges her not to grieve. Exercising her semi-divine powers, Galatea transforms the mortal Acis into an immortal spring, as violins and oboes echo the bubbling, murmuring stream. The chorus then brings the work to a close with a lively song in praise of the apotheosis of Acis brought about by the gentle love of Galatea. 

When the applause for ABS was at its highest peak, conductor Jeffrey Thomas rallied his troops for an encore consisting of the “Happy we” chorus from Act I. It was a fitting encore to a “happy, happy” evening of fine music.