By Robert Croan
“Happy we!”/”Wretched lovers!”/”Galatea, dry they tears!”
That’s the plot, in a nutshell, of Acis and Galatea, Handel’s pastorale opera, first performed in London in 1718, given a rare (and splendidly realized) revival by Seraphic Fire to conclude the group’s two-week Enlightenment Festival in South Florida.
The shepherd Acis and the sea nymph Galatea are united in love until the jealous cyclops Polyphemus crushes Acis to death with a boulder. Galatea, however, exerts her divine powers to transform Acis into a bubbling fountain, from which he emerges as a god. The libretto is literate and lovely, written mostly by John Gay (known for The Beggar’s Opera), based on passages from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
For more than a century after the composer’s death, Acis and Galatea was one of the composer’s most-performed works. Deservedly so, as it’s an irresistible score, containing one of Handel’s greatest hits: the villain’s “O ruddier than the cherry” – a piquant parody in which the bass voice must vie with a mocking sopranino recorder obbligato.
In the Feb. 22 performance in Fort Lauderdale’s All Saints Episcopal Church, the aptly named James Bass (who is also Seraphic’s associate conductor) imparted daunting deep tones to his florid lines, complementing that solo with a gruff and rough vocalization of the monster’s follow-up aria, “Cease to beauty to be suing.”
Every number is a gem, from the bristling overture to the concluding chorus of consolation, and Patrick Quigley – Seraphic Fire’s conductor and artistic director – led his vocal and instrumental chamber ensemble in a crisp and brisk romp that reveled in Handel’s vocal intricacies and plays of instrumental color. Early on, sunny-toned soprano Kathryn Mueller went one-to-one with Geoffrey Burgess’ playful recorder obbligato to simulate the friendly birds in Galatea’s entrance aria, “Hush, ye pretty warbling choir!” Burgess, along with Meg Owens, alternated throughout the evening between recorders and wooden oboes, each of which provided distinctive and ingratiating timbres to set off the vocal lines.
Burgess, as oboist, ingratiated with his part in the heroine’s alluringly vocalized “As when the dove laments her love,” and with a dissimilar emotional tint later in the plaintive introduction to her “Must I my Acis still bemoan.” Mueller enunciated her recitatives with careful attention to the content, phrased her arias with elegance and in her ultimate solo – “Heart, the seat of soft delight” – with considerable eloquence.
Steven Soph was a fervent Acis, though not always up to the technical demands of his arias. His soft-grained tenor was taxed by the high tessitura of “Love in her eyes sits playing” – another Handel hit tune, this in a lilting siciliana rhythm – and his intonation wandered in the sustained high notes of “Love sounds the alarm” (a heroic aria that Handel decades later morphed into the famous “Sound the alarm” in his oratorio, Judas Maccabeus).
Soph came across best in his scenes with Mueller: the exuberant gigue-rhythmed “Happy we!” duet that closes Act 1, and “The flocks shall leave the mountain” – a passionate love duet that becomes a malevolent trio when Polyphemus interjects “Torture!” “Fury!” “Rage!” “Despair!” cutting off the anticipated da capo as he murders his rival midway.
Less than three minutes long, this little gem shows Handel’s mastery of characterization, differentiating individuals who sing simultaneously with dissimilar musical language – something Mozart was to do to even greater effect in his own operas later in the 18th century. It’s significant that Mozart chose to revise and reorchestrate Acis, along with Handel’s Messiah, intending to introduce these two works and make them palatable for audiences of his own generation.
Some of the evening’s most satisfying vocalism came from tenor Brad Diamond, allotted the three characterful arias of the second shepherd, Damon. With pointed forward placement and bright focused tone, Diamond impressed with his controlled legato (smoothness of sound between syllables) and crunchy consonants, making his words more comprehensible than anyone else’s. He also differentiated with subtle nuance between his warnings to Acis in “Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?” and “Consider, fond shepherd”; and his unheeded advice to Polyphemus, “Would you gain the tender creature,” with its pungent refrain, “Suffering is the lover’s part.”
The chorus – for the most part five voices, Seraphic regulars, one singer to a part – was accomplished and expressive, precise in attack and consistently lucid in projection of the all-important words.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this review misidentified the soprano who sang Galatea. She is Kathryn Mueller.