Handel holds court in a richly staged ‘Acis and Galatea’

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / November 30, 2009

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For its second annual chamber opera production, the Boston Early Music Festival mounted a crowd-pleaser, at least by 18th-century standards. George Frideric Handel composed his 1718 pastoral “Acis and Galatea’’ for semi-staged performance at Cannons, the lavish country estate of his patron, the Earl of Carnarvon; transferred to London, it became one of the composer’s most popular efforts.

Stage director Gilbert Blin layered high concept on the piece, turning it into a backstage musical at Cannons itself: the earl and his wife playing the enamored shepherd and nymph of the title, Handel himself as Acis’s fellow shepherd Damon, librettists John Gay and Alexander Pope as the shepherd Coridon and the monstrous antagonist Polyphemus, respectively. (I knew the concept because I watched BEMF’s promotional documentary on YouTube; whether one could parse it all from the production alone, I’m not sure.)

The conceit allowed for Anna Watkins’s lavish period costumes, and did lead to some imaginative touches: a pre-overture furtive (fictional) romantic connection between Pope and the countess; Handel engaging in some situation comedy with the onstage orchestra; Pope-as-Polyphemus’s final, murderous rage interrupting the lovers as they sing Pope’s own couplets. Elsewhere, the overlay was more distracting than provocative. And characters still moved with the stylized gestures of Baroque dance (choreographed by Melinda Sullivan), the injected 18th-century realism no more realistic than the imaginary sylvan countryside, formal distance on top of formal distance.

“Acis’’ is hardly a juggernaut of dramatic intensity, though as he did so often, Handel redeemed a decorous libretto with his musical generosity, and BEMF’s production was musically impeccable. Violinist Robert Mealy fronted a 10-player ensemble, with a robust continuo contingent - including both of BEMF’s musical directors, Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs - giving the music enough rich punch to fill Jordan Hall. (Kathryn Montoya’s high-wire acrobatics on the flageolet recorder earned special laurels among the prevailing excellence.)

As Acis, tenor Aaron Sheehan was superb: his tone classy, clear, and refined, encompassing fluid lyricism and ringing force. Soprano Teresa Wakim (taking over for an ailing Amanda Forsythe) was an ethereal Galatea, her soft-edged, open-vowel timbre consistently lovely, though unvarying. Douglas Williams showed an unusually fine-grained bass voice as Polyphemus, combining close textual attention with elegantly uneasy physical realization (even if he is nearly two feet taller than Alexander Pope was).

Tenor Zachary Wilder turned Coridon’s lone aria, “Would you gain the tender creature,’’ into an affecting oasis, intimate and keenly phrased. And Jason McStoots was both a funny, fussbudget Handel and an unassumingly virtuosic Damon, warming up to his second-act showpiece, “Consider, fond shepherd,’’ coursing with limpid ornamentation.

That dual role was the most subtly apt: Both Damon’s arias warn of love’s bittersweet transience, a sentiment that always brought out Handel’s best. As Acis, killed by Polyphemus, is changed into a fountain, the opera likewise seems to transform into wistful elegy. Handel responded to Cannons’ expensive setting with a reminder: You can’t take it with you.

HANDEL: “ACIS AND GALATEA’’ Gilbert Blin, stage director; Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, musical directors

Presented by the Boston Early Music Festival

At: Jordan Hall Saturday

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