A SENSITIVE AND COMPELLING UPDATING OF HANDEL’S ACIS AND GALATEA
George Frideric Handel, ACIS AND GALATEA, John Gay/Debi Wong (libretto): Debi Wong (Acis), Rachel Fenlon (Galatea), Peter Monaghan (Polyphemus), Marie Civitarese (Damon), with CD Saint, Clinton Stoffberg, Heather Molloy, William Alexander Liu (Chorus), Ensemble Nylandia, Matias Häkkinen (music director), Alan Corbishley (director). Orpheum Annex, September 15, 2017.
‘Pure’ is not a word that springs to mind when thinking about opera. To start with, it is a hybrid art form, neither pure music nor pure verbal drama. Then there is the habit of pastiche, beginning in 17th-century Venice when opera took off with composers less than knowledgeable in the new genre. Then, the 18th and 19th-century tyranny of the singer and the aria di baule, which allowed a specified aria to be replaced by a personal favourite from another work. Add to this a play with gender – early Italian opera’s reliance on the castrato and, later, travesty and breeches roles– and you have an art form defining the new co-production from re:Naissance Opera and Sound the Alarm: Music/Theatre that makes capital of the impurity of opera, its infinite capacity to be ‘born again’. Abetting them in their rebirthing of Handel’s work is its own varied stage history, with a long list of settings by the composer and his various librettists, beginning with John Gay and including John Dryden and Alexander Pope.
Acis and Galatea, the most popular of Handel’s dramatic works in his lifetime, is one of the greatest pastoral operas ever written, with its sensuality and elegiac intensity. It is about the impermanence of love, its unreliability, despite the good intentions of its practitioners. Handel’s work is based on the Ovidian story of the love between a shepherd and a nymph destroyed by the jealousy of a brute—the giant Polyphemus. The company has reconceived this situation as one of conflict over sexual orientation, two 19th-century women falling in love and being punished by ‘straight’ society for this perceived infraction—a pastiche that speaks more to a contemporary audience than the jealousy of a monster does.
This ‘translation’ to a different context proves convincing on all fronts. The words of a man and woman in love work as well for two women. The jealous giant easily translates into a jealous husband, with sexual tyranny apposite to both. Most of the updating was easily supplied by acting and direction: the score followed yet transformed through the action. New motifs were apparent right from the sinfonia, as the cast cheerfully mimed and cross-dressed in front of us, entering the ‘gay’ world of the opera. This was delightfully good-natured, and introduced us to a radical rethinking of the opening chorus, celebrating the harmless pleasures of the pastoral folk. A further example was the lovemaking of Rachel Fenlon as Galatea and Debi Wong as Acis, both of whom acted naturally and credibly, with kisses that came across as real and heartfelt. The lesbian crisis faced by Acis and Galatea was convincingly presented by having Polyphemus, the jealous husband of Galatea, aroused by the two women lovers and becoming sexually aggressive—a telling example of the twisted hostility often displayed toward lesbians by the patriarchy. His attempted rape of Acis easily transferred his original words of rough wooing from Galatea to the ‘other woman’. Finally, in terms of the ‘translation’, one of the most moving moments came when Galatea pleads with her husband to accept her for who she is, which goads him to violence and tragic consequences. Powerful stuff.
While the dramatic situation of the opera was updated, the music making of Matias Häkkinen’s Ensemble Nylandia affirmed ‘authentic’ Baroque style. This Finnish group of six players (harpsichord, two violins, cello, lute, and flute) produced an attractively intimate sound (though I sometimes wished for more projection), sprightly and elegant, the violins providing that tart, vibrato-less tone that so distinguishes baroque period performance today. Altogether, a fine band, with a deft feel for the dance that underlies much of Handel’s music.
The singing was generally excellent, with a strong sense of baroque style. The chorus sang very well, led by the precision, flexibility, character, and beauty of tone of Marie Civitarese as Damon. She was outstanding not just for her singing but also her natural acting. Rachel Fenlon sang Galatea superbly, very period in her delayed vibrato and brilliant roulades and trills. She was in total command of the style and its demands. Ms Fenlon is also a very moving actress: as the pivotal character, she absolutely shone, bringing great pathos to her role as a woman struggling to be accepted for who she is. Debi Wong was characterful as Acis, poignant in her acting and singing, particularly in the love duet between her and Galatea. Peter Monaghan as Polyphemous was properly menacing, if less distinguished vocally.
Alan Corbishley’s direction was fluid, playful and dark by turns, though at times hampered by the set. Craig Alfredson’s set was symbolic—trees you might expect in a pastoral, but with long roots that allowed the trees to rise above the stage where the gay life could be lived among the lifted roots, the ‘hidden’ part of trees. The problem was that when the roots were not in play they snaked across the stage looking jumbled, sometimes proving an impediment to the easy movement of the cast.
All told, this retelling of Handel’s story was refreshing, making perfect sense of music and libretto, doing a fine job of presenting them, and introducing a concept of the opera more dramatically compelling than the original. An auspicious production from a new troupe in town, admirably fulfilling a mandate to ‘present performances that bend genres and build bridges between the historic and the contemporary; the artist and the audience; the imaginary and the real.’
© Harvey De Roo 2017