The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Getting an handle on Handel – The Madison’s Opera’s production of “Acis and Galatea” gets the music right but distorts the “dramatic” action of the so-called “opera.”

January 12, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.


By John W. Barker

All credit to artistic director and conductor John DeMain and to company director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) for extending the reach of Madison Opera into the Baroque literature. The facilities of the Overture Center‘s Playhouse are of an intimate scale that would offer an ideal venue for the deft textures of Baroque music.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

But the first choice for such a venture has produced, alas, very mixed results, since excellent musical motives have been sacrificed to the ministrations of one of today’s overweening stage directors.

Handel‘s “Acis and Galatea” is not an opera, much less and “English opera.” Such a form did not really exist until the early 19th century. Handel himself, in two of what we call his full-length “secular oratorios” (“Semele” and “Hercules”), did compose what is really opera in English, but he never made any effort to present them on stage. Opera for him was Italian opera.

Handel (below) was, of course, a prolific composer of operas, over 40 of them. But they were all in Italian, all long three-act pieces, which just now might be beyond the capacities of Madison Opera and its audiences.

handel big 2

“Acis and Galatea” belongs instead to the very British theatrical form of the masque or pastoral. It is a form that evolved back in the 16th century as courtly entertainment, originally not something for a general (much less paying) public. Its subjects were flimsy reflections of mythological or other literary stories.

While some stagings could be quite elaborate, it was a concise and direct musical form of little or no dramatic intention. By the late 17th century, masques also became musical divertissements inserted (with little direct connection) into spoken dramas on the London stage.

During his stay in Italy, Handel had already composed an Italian “serenata” on the story of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus, taken largely from the Roman poet Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Ten years later, newly established in England, he worked for a while under the patronage of the unscrupulous politician and war profiteer, James Brydges, already Earl of Carnavon and in the process of becoming the Duke of Chandos.

That gentleman built a pretentious residential pile called Cannons. It was there that Handel apparently lodged for a number of months, and it was there that “Acis and Galatea” was presented in private performance in 1718. (Attempts to identify Handel’s work with the later-built residence of the Earls of Carnavon, Highclere (below) — lately used as the site for filming PBS “Downton Abbey” TV series — are totally incorrect.)

Highclere Castle

In its original one-act form, “Acis and Galatea” seems to have been presented by something like 17 performers: just five singers (who sang both solo roles and choral parts), and about a dozen instrumentalists (without viola). There may have been some costumes, but not much in the way of staging. It was, from the start, a concert work, not a theatrical piece, and was never intended to launch “English opera.”

Though it would eventually become Handel’s most popular dramatic work, it first slumbered until 1731 when a pirated production of it was presented in London. That was so successful that Handel responded with a grandiose riposte, overhauling the originally brief score, expanding its performers and length, and interpolating a great deal of his own earlier music, in Italian as well as English but without costumes or sets — in other words, a big concert performance. Only gradually did the essential “Acis and Galatea” settle down into the two-act form in which we know it today, and which is heard frequently.

Acis poster

With all that background in mind, how do we assess the Madison Opera production? (It runs for two more performances – tonight at 8 pm. and Sunday Afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Call the Overture Center box office at (608) 258-4141 for tickets.)

On musical grounds, it must be rated a success. While John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) is no early music specialist and relies on “modern instruments” (e.g., a piccolo in place of a sopranino recorder), he did use a band of 13 players of exactly the right scale. He had his string players suppress their vibrato, and lead a clean, crisp, and thoroughly musical rendition.

John DeMain HeadShot color by James Gill

He was also fortunate in his singers, a group of young and strong voices, perhaps lacking some variety of nuance, but with good diction, and, in the case of three of the four leads, able to venture some modest embellishments due in the repeats of the da capo arias.

Were this a concert performance, it would have been fine. The problem comes in staging a Baroque work — shown below in color photos by James Gill done for the Madison Opera —  especially one that really was not meant to be staged. There is no doubt that egotistical stage directors have come to dominate so much of today’s operatic production already in “mainstream” operas, but they do so with a vengeance in assaults on Handel, whose style these directors neither understand nor respect.

Nor do they seem to trust the public to accept “earlier” opera without some kind of “updating” of the libretto. Handel opera productions today proliferate. But hardly a one of them is left without the impositions of false “drama” and “relevance” by directors with their own transforming “concepts.”

“Acis and Galatea” is, we must remember, an entertaining treatment of a story from mythology. If it has any “message,” it is that love, together with magic, can overcome brutal violence. It has no real chronological setting. Any decision to give it such a setting is an imposition, with whatever degree of appropriateness.

Acis (below, sung by Daniel Shirley) is a Sicilian shepherd, in love with and loved by a local woodland nymph (semi-divine), whose bliss is destroyed when the monstrous Polyphemus, one of Neptune’s cyclops sons, kills him in jealous rage; whereupon Galatea (below, sung by Angela Mortellaro) uses her powers to immortalize him as a river (which, by the way, is still identified on the slopes of Mt. Etna). It is mythological fluff, and if a company does not like or trust mythological fluff it should direct its attention elsewhere.

acis gill daniel shirley as acis

Acis Gill Galatea Angela Mortellaro

What director David Lefkowich (below) has imposed upon the piece for stage purposes is not only supremely irrelevant to the score, but is even inconsistent with itself. Acis is a soldier returning from World War I. Galatea is some kind of socialite in a cocktail dress, accompanied by four totally useless attendants. Polyphemus (whose one-eyed deformity is confirmed by a huge Lifesaver that dropped down whenever he was onstage) is a caricature of a brutal militarist. The five-part chorus (sung for Handel by the five soloists of the cast) is taken up by five different singers identified as “villagers.”

Acis David Lefkowich

All of their posturing is done with ruthlessly endless movement, at all times, as if the director was terrified that his audience would become bored by the repetitive character of the musical style. (I often wished that the singers would simply stand still, just for an occasional moment, to spare us a little distraction from the music.)

The climax of all this came in Act II, with the aria by Polyphemus’  (below, played by Jeff Beruan) “O ruddier than the cherry,” meant to be a musical joke against the monster’s image. Here the director drove head-on into the music and flattened it utterly with an exaggerated melodrama of cannibalism, completely misrepresenting Handel’s humor.

acis gill Jeff Beruan as Polyphemus cyclops

Yes, the set (below) was a nicely spilling spread; the lighting was nicely handled. There was plenty of color. Lots of mugging and sight gags. The audience I was part of – an impressive full house — seemed to love it. But I wonder: How many people came out of it with a deeper understanding of, and joy in, Handel’s absolutely delicious music? (At bottom is a YouTube video from a production of “Acis and Galatea” by the Boston Early Music Festival.)

acis gill galatea set

It is important that Handel’s huge legacy of dramatic music be given more exposure and accessibility. But the Madison Opera’s venture into that cause does not promise well if it is to be yoked to the distortions of “concept” stage direction.

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