Arcadian bliss and tragedy
The Elgin Theatre
10/30/2010 - & November 2*, 3, 5, 6, 7, 2010
George Frideric Handel:Acis and Galatea
Mireille Asselin (Galatea), Thomas Macleay (Acis), Joao Fernandes (Polyphemus), Lawrence Williford (Damon), Artists of Atelier Ballet
Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins (Choir Director), David Fallis (Conductor)
Marshall Pynkoski (Director), Gerard Gauci (Set and Costume Designer), Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg (Choreographer), Kevin Fraser (Lighting Designer)
Handel’s pastoral work is among his earliest operas and might well be the shortest, with just 90 minutes of music in two acts. Opera Atelier produced it in 1997, but this current production is totally new.
The plot, from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, is simple: mortal shepherd Acis and semidivine water nymph Galatea are in love. She is wooed by the one-eyed giant, Polyphemus. Acis is no match for him and is killed. Galatea transforms him into a fountain where she can join him.
The three characters of the love triangle are joined by just one other soloist, Damon, staged here as a daemon, or spirit who (invisibly most of the time) occupies the Arcadian glade. Lawrence Williford would be justified in billing himself as a singer/dancer, given how well he performs the animated role as conceived by Marshall Pynkoski.
There are more than a few flashes of humour in the staging, especially in the treatment of Polyphemus who is, for all his meance, quite a silly giant. The nursery-rhyme repetitiveness of the libretto often veers into parody. (The libretto is by John Gay who is most famous for his send-up of Handelian opera, The Beggar’s Opera, created in 1728, just 10 years after Acis and Galatea.)
Mireille Asselin makes a memorable debut as Galatea. She trained at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory and more recently at Yale. I suspect (and hope) we’ll be seeing and hearing more of her, with Opera Atelier and elsewhere.
Thomas Macleay makes a welcome return, having been heard in last season’s Iphigénie en Tauride. After tentative opening lines he gives a commanding account of his character’s fluctuating moods in Act II when he wants to attack the sleeping Polyphemus but is warned off by Galatea. There is still a work-in-progress aspect to his voice - but it’s progressing nicely.
Another welcome return is that of Joao Fernandes, last heard here as Seneca in L’incoronazione di Poppea. His delivery of every note, decoration and syllable is a model of how it ought to be done.
In addition to designing yet another immensely attractive set, resident designer Gerard Gauci has taken on the costumes as well. Earlier stagings at OA have sometimes seemed a tad over-dressed, with the occasional clash of palettes between set and costumes. No such problem here. Another humourous element lies in the design of Acis’s frisky herd of goats. The hurling of Polyphemus’s huge boulder that kills Acis is well-handled. Another nice touch at a key moment is a brief shower of silver sparkles.
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra appears in its 20-member guise. They sound wonderful in the dulcet moments but I wouldn’t have minded more heft in bumptious passages. The Elgin Theatre, for all its opulance, is a sound-swallower and Opera Atelier have employed them in larger form - 35 or so members - for other works. David Fallis conducts as capably as ever. The 18-voice chorus, singing from stage boxes, have a grainy sound, with individual voices making their presence heard. This works especially well in Wretched lovers which opens Act II and forshadows the tragedy to come.
And of course the 12 dancers of Atelier Ballet make a sympathetic contribution as the ever-graceful denizens of Arcadia.
Opera Atelier, now in its 25th year, is flourishing. The company looks forward to adding a third production to its seasons, and to a co-production with the Glimmerglass Festival. Its distinctive approach to staging, with an emphasis on dance and specific ideas of stage deportment, has polarized audiences to a degree. If there are those who can’t be bothered with it, there is a healthy and appreciative audience for what they do. Next up: Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.