The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Ear takes away some pleasure and many lessons from the Madison Opera’s production of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea.”

January 15, 2013

By Jacob Stockinger

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the final performance by the Madison Opera of a largely sold-out run of Handel’s “opera” “Acis and Galatea.” (All color production photos used below are by James Gill for the Madison Opera.)

You may recall that guest reviewer John W. Barker (below) reviewed it on opening night last Thursday and found much about the inauthenticity to criticize in the production. Here is a link to that review:


Now since I am not as avid an opera fan as John, and since he has forgotten more about opera, classical music and history in general than I will ever know, I was convinced I would like it more than he did and was prepared to go and file a minority report, a dissent if you will.

But surprise! I found much to agree with in John’s review, and just a few points on which to disagree.

So let me get to them – and to wish the Madison Opera congratulations and hope that we will see more Baroque-era opera and early Classical-era opera (some Gluck, perhaps? maybe “Orpheus and Eurydice”?) in The Playhouse of the Overture Center, the intimate theater being a perfect place to stage small-scale opera.

All that plus the fact that Madison Opera considers the run a commercial and artistic success. It had an astounding overall sales-attendance rate of 94 percent, according to marketing and communications director Ronia Holmes, who added that it is never bad for a production to get patrons talking. So the Madison Opera’s new General Director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill)  can be proud of her achievement. Kudos!

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

Anyway, on to my points, in no special order:

1. John Barker was completely right about the excellence of the small musical ensemble. Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain, who is also music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, did an outstanding job of keeping the scale and balance. Modern instruments projected an early music sound, and the pace was up-tempo.

It was enough to make me wish that the Madison Symphony Orchestra would use a smaller ensemble and program on its concert series some outstanding Baroque music – especially the Concerto Grossi by Handel;  the Brandenburg Concertos, the violin concertos and the keyboard concertos by J.S. Bach; and some string and wind concertos by Vivaldi. Increasingly, larger ensemble are returning to that early repertoire with spectacular results – Riccardo Chailly and the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra come immediately to mind – as long as they incorporate the lessons taken from the movement toward historically informed performance.

John DeMain HeadShot color by James Gill

2. The form of the masque or whatever you want to call the original score of “Acis and Galatea” is just that — an artificial, highly stylized convention. And this century has its own peculiar conventions. But I am no purist. So, why not mix them? I say.

For example, recasting the lead male roles into World War I soldiers seemed a gratuitous updating at first and made no sense — until you realized that the topic of the opera is to lament the frustrations and short life of love, with Acis and Galatea as a case study. And what generation of women ever lost so many men, so many lovers and boyfriends and husbands – as the World War I generation. The concept staging by director David Lefkowich (below) didn’t work perfectly, but it worked well enough and much better than the flimsy original for these days and this time.

Acis David Lefkowich

3. I go to opera for the music. In fact, I find all opera plots pretty much banal and trite, melodramatic and predictable. I mean, you wouldn’t set my kind of theater — Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” —  to music, would you? But others love the theatrical aspect of opera.

So the beautiful sets, the gorgeous lighting and the inventive costumes (below) – all explain why the production drew generous laughter and a standing ovation from the audiences who are not specialists and who enjoyed themselves and appreciated the efforts that went into the production.

acis gill galatea set

4. “Acis and Galatea” may have been popular in its own time, but its endlessly repetitious libretto – which, with all the da capo lyrics, becomes downright slow, tedious and boring much of the time – seemed to be a second-rate text. (“Happy, happy me” is hard to believe  was written by the same John Gay who wrote “The Beggar’s Opera”.) And it is coupled with mostly second-rate music (you would never guess this was the same composer who wrote “Messiah”).

True, there were indeed moving moments where the genius of Handel (below), whose music is generally more extroverted and accessible than Bach, shone through, especially during the opening Overture and at the beginning of Act II.) It just seems hopelessly outdated. Period. But when you are a professional composer-musician — not a paid church musician like Bach or Telemann — I guess you sometimes just have to grind it out to please your patron and earn a living to pay the bills.

Overall, I found the opera flimsy and fluffy stuff, exactly as John Barker described it. But it seemed suited to the purpose originally it served. I imagine aristocrats after a feast sitting around looking at this masque or entertainment or enchantment, even talking during it, instead of watching TV or dancing.

If you think of this mythological “opera” going along with an after-dinner cordial (green crème de menthe seems an ideal complement), well, it changes your perspective and makes the production more of an acceptable work. Back then, I suspect, audiences thought more metaphorically and less literally.

handel big 2

5. Baroque music is so popular and so easy to like that you forget how hard it can be to perform. The main voices were quite good – but they really needed to be even better, especially when it came to ornamentation and projecting a non-physical intensity and expressiveness.

6. Most of all, the entire production, both musical and theatrical, simply needed better material. ‘Acis and Galatea” serves as a fine introduction, as an hors-d’oeuvre or appetizer. But it does give one an appetite to see and hear meatier fare, more and better Baroque opera by Handel, Scarlatti and Vivaldi.

7. The production had some original and quite inventive moments, but none proved more enjoyable than when the Cyclops Polyphemus (sung by Jeffrey Beruan, below top) has voodoo-like box (below bottom) through which he literally twists the pastoral Edwardian peasants to his wishes. It was a nice stage touch – and the production benefitted from such a clever liberty.

acis gill Jeff Beruan as Polyphemus cyclops

Acis model of set

But here are some other reviews by other reviewers that make different points from either John Barker’s or mine.

Here is Gregg Hettmansberger’s review for his blog “Classically Speaking” for Madison Magazine:

Here is Lindsay Christians’ review for 77 Square, The Capital Times and The Wisconsin State Journal:

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