George Frideric Handel was outraged. The German-born composer had worked hard to establish a career as an operatic hit-maker in London. But now a rival entrepreneur had poached one of the enterprising maestro’s early works, a lively two-act pastorale written for a wealthy noble patron in 1718, and was presenting it with great popular success on the Haymarket. Indignant and likely more than a little envious, Handel countered by restaging the piece himself hastily expanded to include a full chorus plus a number of additional secondary characters. The 1732 premiere was not well-received with its inflated orchestra and awkward mix of English and fashionable Italian airs. Handel tinkered with the work obsessively for nearly ten years before reverting to his original chamber format and all-English libretto by John Gay and Alexander Pope. From that point on, Acis and Galatea would be in almost continual performance in England and beyond.
Toronto Masque Theatre’s semi-staged production of Handel’s enduring work presented at the Elora Festival this summer effectively invokes the tantalizing flavour and charm of George Frideric’s mini-masterpiece. Artistic Director Larry Beckwith’s approach is very much a close-up take on a beguiling piece variously described in history as a masque, a Baroque sereneta (a themed program of accompanied songs presented outdoors), a “musik entertainment” and a pastoral opera. Handel himself referred to it simply as “a little opera”. It is the latter definition that prevails in Beckwith’s version. With its qualities of expanded emotion and vivid characterizations, the overtly dramatic shines through in this performance despite severe restrictions of venue.
Elora’s lovely pre-Confederation Church of St. John the Evangelist is undoubtedly an inspiring place of worship but as a setting for opera, however downsized, it is less than ideal. Acoustics are primitive and echoey. The nave is far too cramped to showcase even limited action effectively. Clear lines of sight from the rock-hard pews are difficult to find. The lighting is dim at best. And yet, somehow against all odds, this appealing little Acis and Galtea prevails.
The story, plucked from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is classic Baroque musical theatre, idealized and escapist.
The semi-divine nymph Galatea loves and is loved by the shepherd Acis. All is sweetness and birdsong in Arcadia it seems. For a while. A second shepherd, Damon, counsels restraint in matters of the heart. A sense of foreboding descends over the happy setting. The monstrous giant Polyphemus arrives, bellowing with lust. Deranged by his passion for Galatea and maddened by jealousy, Polyphemus crushes Acis beneath a mighty rock. Galatea tragically mourns her loss until reminded of her celestial powers whereupon she magically transforms her dead lover into a fountain. Acis will sparkle for all eternity, a testament to the lovers’ mutual devotion.
The temptation to picture Handel conducting the premiere for the Duke of Chandos, cueing the head gardener at Cannons to open the flood gates and unleash the newly installed jet d’eau, is irresistible.
Judged by twenty-first century sensibilities, the opera’s libretto is pure archaic fluff. But Handel’s inventiveness as a composer is entirely a different matter. From the first bars of its opening Sinfonia to the strains of its closing chorus, Acis and Galatea is punctuated time and time again by moments of sheer inspiration. In fact, all four choruses on show are extraordinary, big, bold and hugely expressive, foreshadowing Handel’s use of mass voices in his later oratorios. The Elora Festival Singers under the experienced direction of founder Noel Edison are nothing short of glorious in each and every one.
Orchestration is equally ingenious in this compact corner of Handel’s world. Polyphemus, the roaring, stomping giant, is pitted against a distinctly comic obbligato instrument, usually a high-pitched alto recorder, during the monster’s burly, “O ruddier than the cherry”. In his role as conductor of Toronto Masque Theatre’s seven-player period ensemble, Larry Beckwith curiously misses an obvious opportunity for humour by assigning the part to a modern oboe. No such gaffes re the make-believe treeful of warbling birds in Act I. First and second violins make for deliciously playful sound effects.
Toronto Masque Theatre’s musicians infuse every bar of Handel’s clever score with exceptional vitality. Musical direction is brisk and crisp, although tempi are arguably over-accelerated at times in some of the opera’s more bucolic moments. Galatea’s rapturous, “As when the dove”, feels rushed. Elsewhere, however, an irresistible sense of lyricism underlies this Acis and Galatea’s numerous heavenly airs.
Singing the part of Handel’s cherished nymph, soprano Jacqueline Woodley soars. Her voice is astonishing, an exquisite blend of clarity and warmth. Technique is flawless and transparent, coloratura luminous. Gifted with fine acting ability, Woodley’s radiant stage presence communicates a compelling depth of physical emotion not commonly seen in concert performances. Hers is a subtle, complex Galatea, wistful yet courageous, human yet goddess-like.
Tenor Lawrence Wiliford’s Acis is well-counterpointed, quick and intense in voice and movement with the sharp-eyed vigilance of a shepherd on the lookout for marauding beasts. Or a rapacious giant. The tautness of Wilford’s Acis makes his tender moments with Galatea all the more precious. His dreamy da capo aria, “Love in her eyes sits playing” is movingly performed. Top notes ring crystal bright.
As the hulking monster Polyphemus, Peter McGillivray stomps and roars, tearing a broad comic swath through the Toronto Masque Theatre production’s imaginary scenery. McGillivray’s stage technique is as bold and theatrical as his booming bass-baritone, his sense of fun infectious. Although vocally reticent in passages calling for bravura ornamentation, this Polyphemus is still most definitely a rampaging force of nature. And utterly indomitable.
Graham Thomson’s Damon is equally well-characterized. A less muscular tenor than Wiliford, Thomson sings Acis and Galatea’s second shepherd with command and assurance, bringing a velvet-like tone to the role. Forever quick to counsel, Damon is gifted with several of the opera’s loveliest airs. Thomson sings all of them elegantly, particularly Handel’s lilting words of advice to Polyphemus, “Softly, gently, kindly treat her”.
The contribution made to the success of this refreshingly unpretentious Acis and Galatea by the Elora Festival Singers as Chorus deserves repeating. They are, quite simply, spectacular.
There are at least four distinct qualities common to virtually every work George Frideric Handel ever composed: intelligence, refinement, emotion and wit. Precious values in any musical equation. Toronto Masque Theatre’s Acis and Galatea has them all. Added up, the historic formula equals a charming afternoon of early opera delightfully sung and played.