To close their 30th anniversary season, NYS Baroque welcomes spring with a popular pastoral opera called “Acis & Galatea” by George Frideric Handel. This semi-staged production, featuring five singers and a nine-piece orchestra conducted from the harpsichord by Leon Schelhase, takes place on Saturday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m. in Ithaca’s First Presbyterian Church (different than their normal venue of the First Unitarian Society).
The opera, originally written for performance by small forces, is not usually done in this earlier version, but as musical director Deborah Fox said, “It is chamber music, what we do best as NYS Baroque.” Stage direction is by Emily Cuk, who was assistant director in the ensemble’s production of “Dido and Aeneas” last summer.
First called a serenata and then a masque (the composer called it a “small opera”), “Acis & Galatea” was written in 1718 when Handel was composer-in-residence at Cannons, the estate of the Duke of Chandos close to London, a place where the duke had assembled leading intellectuals of the time. Handel was smart, Italian opera had run its course in London, so here was a safe place to do smaller courtly entertainments. The libretto based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” was written mainly by John Gay, long before “The Beggar’s Opera” made him famous. Later versions and revivals, including several by Handel and an adaptation by Mozart, have been regularly performed throughout subsequent centuries.
The story is of the shepherd Acis, who is in love with the nymph Galatea. She in turn attracts the attention of a monstrous cyclops Polyphemus who, when rejected by her, turns his jealous anger against Acis, whom he kills. The mourning Galatea, using her divine powers, turns her lover’s body into a fountain, so she can always be near him.
A core group of outstanding singers are assembled for this production: well-known soprano Laura Heimes and tenor Jonas Budris play the star-crossed lovers. They are joined by tenors Andrew Fuchs and newcomer Nickolas Karageorgiou as shepherd friends, while bass Andrew Padgett plays a central role as Polyphemus. The five also make up the chorus. Accompanying them is an unusual collection of instruments, no viola and three wind players. The bassoon plays mostly with the continuo made up of the lutes plus harpsichord. Everyone has multiple roles, showing, as oboist Geoffrey Burgess said, a genius of economy and creative instrumental coloring. The oboes have to move among varying styles, he adds—martial, tender, characterizing solos. The mourning Galatea, for example, hears the oboe as the ghost of Acis. They also play recorders that evoke the dove’s murmurs and represent bubbling water. In these instrumental roles are Burgess and New York City-based Caroline Giassi. We also have familiar returning players, including violinists Julie Andrijeski and Boel Gidholm, cellist David Morris, plus archlute and theorbo players Dan Swenberg and, naturally, Fox.
This “small opera” carries a big wallop, with rich orchestral color and beautiful melodies that evoke a variety of emotions and moods. It was immediately popular especially because the text was immediately understood by English audiences. Burgess points out too that the choral writing is outstanding, that Handel was composing in the established English style, best represented by Purcell. As he said, “it was the flavor of the time.” One outstanding example is the “beautifully written” chorus that opens the second act, “Wretched lovers!” Already a melancholy tone is set, and the giant steps of Polyphemus are painted in the music.
When asked about notable places in the opera, both Fox and Burgess speak of the military piece, “Love sounds the alarm,” sung by Acis, who is mustering his strength to fight the cyclops, accompanied by the two oboes sounding like trumpets. Both point to the humor in presenting this monster, who sings “I rage, I melt, I burn” and calls for many reeds for his instrument which, in the following “Ruddier than the cherry,” turns out to be a sopranino recorder, the highest, “tweetiest” instrument possible. As Burgess said, “it’s always fun when Polyphemus comes on the stage, you’re ready for the drama.” Fox loves Galatea’s aria in the end when Acis is turned into a fountain, “you hear it in the music.” Actually, one doesn’t need much staging for this opera; the music describes the action. We can hear a hurling rock, shepherds dancing, songs of birds, footsteps of the giant, the murmuring of the fountain.
Although she has never performed it in its entirety, Fox picked this opera herself. It’s “wonderful to learn a new piece of music,” she said. NYS Baroque has been planning for about a year, selecting which singer is good for which part. The ensemble has a core group of musicians who know one another very well and like to collaborate.
“It just feels comfortable,” Fox said.
And there are always few changes along the way. Michael Beattie, who was scheduled to conduct, had to withdraw just recently because of an injury.
“It was Michael’s and my first choice to ask Leon to take over,” Fox said. “It will be different. He will have his own musical ideas. But he, too, is a frequent collaborator.”
She concludes with the idea of such an incredible array of emotions, affect, and modes, so much word and scene painting: “This is a great piece of music. The audience will love it.”