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A Saxon-English Ovidian Metamorphosis

New York
Venetian Theater, Caramoor Gardens
07/23/2023 -  
George Frederic Handel: Acis and Galatea, HWV 49a (Original 1718 version)
Nicholas Mulroy (Acis), Hera Hyesang Park (Galatea), Isaiah Bell (Damon), Dashon Burton (Polyphemus), Daniel Moody (Ensemble)
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, Richard Egarr (Conductor)
Aria Umezawa (Director)

H. H. Park/N. Mulroy (© David Golick/Metropolitan Opera)

Never forget Handel’s works, as they always offer the best nourishment for your ripe musical mind, and will at the same time lead to admiration for this great man.
Ludwig van Beethoven, to Archduke Rudolph

A tub of pork and beer.
Hector Berlioz’s description of Handel

Next to Messiah, it was hardly astonishing that Acis and Galatea was Handel’s most popular work in the 18th Century. After all, how can an amorphous vocal work (neither opera, masque or oratorio) be so simple in plot, yet still contains love, monsters, death, fighting and (of course) a typical Ovid metamorphosis? How could the corpulent Saxon have written a work more suitable to Dowland or Purcell or Lully? More appropriately, how could George Frederick Handel, whose English was secondary to his German and Italian, manage to engage literary stars like Alexander Pope and John Gay to write words to his tunes?

Somehow it all works. And somehow–or inevitably–the Arcadian gardens of Caramoor were the bucolic setting for an amiable production of Acis and Galatea.

Though not quite. The pastorale might have been staged in Caramoor’s gardens rather than their Venetian theater. But that ideal would have failed, since the real grounds for its success were not from the gardens, but Handel’s oh so charming music. This was not the religious Handel of Messiah or the martial Judas Maccabaeus or even the brassy Water Music. This was Handel the tune‑maker. A man who could make a hokey opening about nymphs and shepherds into a piece of delicate loveliness. Who could turn the rage of a monster Cyclops not into the fury of Why Do The Nations So Furiously Rage but into a satire on anger.

Caramoor had the voices–and the exciting visceral conducting of Richard Eggar and his Handelian-sized Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra–to transform such a slight pastorale into an ebullient masterpiece. Even more vital, not a single moment, not even the mourning Galatea at the end, gave anything but Handelian animation.

Partly this was the lively direction of Aria Umezawa. Not quite an opera, the staging could have been minimal, but the actors here strode across the stage, peered into the orchestra and interconnected as much as possible. Dashon Burton as the monster Polyphemus pranced across the stage, his steps in line with Handel’s staccato notes. Hera Hyesang Park’s Galatea was pert and perky as the love‑lorn nymph. And when her shepherd boyfriend is killed, her lamentational movements were like a parody of a Lucia mad scene. And in the impossible finale where Acis is turned into a river, the silk‑like soft rolls came across both sides of the stage with the simple trickery that the original 1718 production could have used.

R. Eggar (© Philharmonia Baroque)

Granted, not much can be done with Act I. The high point of the act is when Acis’s friend Damon tells him not to pursue a nymph because he’s a shepherd. (One was thinking of Messiah’s For We Professionally Like Sheep). The music is pretty-pretty in the best 18th Century style. But the sappy (okay, saccharine) story would make Barbie look like Brothers Karamazov.

The second act starts with jealous Mr. Burton, with appropriate action. And oh, it would be so so easy to say that the powerful bass‑baritone stole the show. That might be true. And compared to our schmaltzy lovers, this was a wonderful creation. After all, a lovely trio interrupted by the monster’s short notes is worthy of any dramatist. And a love‑song beginning “Oh ruddier than the cherry”, sung by the murderous death‑dealing monster, is satire worthy of the early Marx Brothers.

Others in the cast had lacked drama but were perfectly suitable. Hera Hyasang Park, in a dazzling emerald gown (where could a sea-nymph buy such fashion?) was reverent, light. I didn’t believe her pain, but doubt whether Alexander Pope did either. Isaiah Bell as Best Friend Damon was a powerful tenor with the range of a baritone. One had questions about Nicholas Mulray as the lovesick Acis. This was a pleasing enough voice, but a bit soft, a bit gooey, not the kind of “man’s man” which a self‑respecting goddess like Galatea would take to her breast.

Still, if the solos sometimes lacked oomph, their choruses (with the addition of Daniel Moody as “chorus”) had good Handelian power.

Thus, the combination of Ovidian myth, consciously silly amour, faux terror and youthful music by the still‑young Handel made for a beguiling show. At the end, I was musing, “How shameful that G.F. Handel didn’t set his inspiration to Midsummer Night’s Dream, with a Pyramus and Thisbe as comic as a one‑eyed monster In the meantime, though we had Acis and Galatea, a minor pastorale, grown glistening by a major composer.

Harry Rolnick



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