Handel: Acis and Galatea
Performed at Sanders Theatre by the New York Chamber Soloists
Mem Hall and baroque opera have one thing in common: both are absurd. Plodding, unsubtle, ridiculous plots in unvaried da capo musical structure keep works like Handel's Acis and Galatea out of the usual repertoire. But given a performance (even in concert form) of last Monday's quality, many of the better points of the genre can be exploited.
Librettist John Gay (of Beggar's Opera fame) drew upon an ancient Neapolitan myth: in the jealousy of the evil giant Polyphemus drives him to kill Acts, beloved shepherd of the goddess Galatea. Handel's occasionally inspired setting of the text reaches a high-point in the opening of Act Two. This chorus is beautiful and clever, true baroque artifice in a humorous double fugue:
Wretched lovers! fate has passed
This sad decree; no joy shall last.
Wretched lovers, quit your dream!
Rehold the monster Polypheme!
See what ample strides he takes!
The mountain nods, the forest shakes;
The waves run frighten'd to the shores;
Hark, how the thund'ring giant roars!
There are six separate textures in the one chorus, ranging from the brilliant counterpoint of "wretched lovers" set against "Behold the monster..." to a unison homophonic admiration for the giant's "ample strides."
Raymond Murcell as Polyphemus displayed a perfect combination of grotesque rage and pathetic impotence. His love aria--with an amusing piccolo obbligato solo--was especially well-ornamented and had a healthy rhythmic bounce supported by the continuo. A Scotch snap rhythm (more formally known as inverted dotting) was used for the aria. Though this is missing from some recordings of Acis, the obbligato solo clearly calls for it.
Lieder-singing tenors often find the transition to early music difficult, but Charles Bressler is an exception. In the second part of Acis he supplied both magnificent solo technique (best in his martial "Love sounds th'alarm" aria) and at other times a capacity for blending in with the chorus. Bressler's voice is impressively agile while his manner is wholly engaging. The same cannot be said for soprano Jean Hakes. Singing Galatea's role, too often she allowed superfluous dramatic gestures to interfere with the music. She does possess an exceptional grace of execution, proving again her mastery of all manner of vocal embellishments.
The accompaniment for Acis was spirited yet discrete. The eight-piece ensemble of flute, two oboes, strings, and harpsichord was led by first-violinist Stanley Ritchie. Except for the "Happy we" chorus which was far too fast, tempi tended to lapse into a tempo ordinario, a common pitfall of Handel's music.
An elegant touch to the evening was a revival of an old Handelian custom, the playing of a keyboard concerto during intermission. It was no accident that the canny old Hanoverian preferred the great volume of the organ to the harpsichord's thin tone at those intermissions. Fortunately, the Sanders audience quieted down in very un-eighteenth century fashion to hear a distinctly unemotional performance by Harriet Wingreen at the harpsichord.
The Chamber Soloists were enthusiastically received, an encouraging start for the Cambridge-Early Music Society's twentieth season. Had all the players caught the enthusiasm of the Messrs. Bressler, Murcell, and Ritchie, the evening would have been still more successful. Even so, a performance such as this with under fifteen people has infinitely more vigor than the cast-of-thousands approach used by the large opera organizations in their infrequent Handel offerings. Acis--along with Henry Purcell's chamber opera Dido and Aeneas--could make a strong case for baroque opera. It is a sad commentary on the form, however, that the better examples are really atypical.