Acis & Galatea

Ah, the beautiful days of August are upon us. Avian Flight School is in full throttle and the backyard is a busy place, with fledgling robins, cardinals, sparrows and starlings all testing their wings and their vocal chords. And as they sing and squawk outside, I look forward to a couple of weeks in which my own music making will be also be mostly home-based, made up of practicing, writing music and playing just for the sheer fun of it. Fun will also be included in the ‘wood-shedding’ and writing too if I listen more to the muses than the Id, an ability at which I thankfully seem to be developing more skill.

And as I look forward in the spirit of fun, it’s also worth taking a look back at my most recent gig. It’s important to give a big nod to the happiest gigs!

In late July the Toronto Masque Theatre presented two summer festival performances of Händel’s Acis & Galatea. Already booked elsewhere and unable to participate in their first show at the Elora Festival, I was a part of the orchestra for the second performance at the Stockey Centre in Parry Sound, Ontario – and what a totally enjoyable gig that was. First of all, who would ever say no to a visit to Parry Sound? It’s such a beautiful place, on Georgian Bay and with all those trees that haven’t forgotten how they posed for Group of Seven paintings. The concert venue, the Stockey Centre for the Arts, is a handsome and intimate hall of stone and wood, and an acoustic delight.

Stockey Centre for the Arts, Parry Sound, ON

Stockey Centre for the Arts, Parry Sound, ON

The Stockey is also right down on the water and features a boardwalk patio with a first-class view of spectacular sunsets, which one can enjoy along with an intermission cocktail.

Georgian Bay, at Parry Sound, ON

Georgian Bay, at Parry Sound, ON

And then, there’s the music. Though it could more properly be called a masque or a pastorale, Händel described Acis & Galatea as a ‘little opera,’ which it certainly is; it It’s not like his other four- or five-hour extravaganzas which really ought to require catered meals for the audience and intermissions long enough for a nap. Händel created several versions of the piece, the first in 1718 and the last (and nowadays most familiar) one in 1739. Mozart made an arrangement of it in 1788.

A&G is a bit truncated, a two-act Reader’s Digest rendering of the myth in which a shepherd named Acis falls in love with a water nymph named Galatea. The story, based on the version in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is fairly uncomplicated but worth a short précis. Happily for Acis, his love for Galatea is requited, but the Cyclops Polyphemus loves her too and he fares far worse. Besides the fact that she’s already smitten with Acis, Galatea has a big problem with Polyphemus’s predilection for snacking on human babies and quaffing blood as though it were Beaujolais Nouveau. There’s a fourth character, another shepherd named Damon who occasionally drops in to give advice, like an 18th-century male Dear Abby. But his advice is of no use to Polyphemus who, saddened, furious, and with a big anger management problem, crushes Acis to death with a gigantic boulder. Before he’s reborn as a stream, Acis sings a final aria from underneath the massive rock. Depending on how a director chooses to play it, this ending is utterly tragic, completely ridiculous, or both.

My colleagues in the orchestra were all excellent musicians and lovely people, all of whom I wish I could see much more frequently. We were a very small band, much like what Händel had at his disposal for his earliest performances: two violins, one cello, a harpsichord and an archlute, two oboes and a recorder. As for the singers, not only the four soloists were outstanding, but also the other four singers who sang the choruses, sometimes with the others joining in and sometimes not. It’s not easy for singers trained as soloists to sing well as an ensemble, especially an ensemble that doesn’t regularly work together, but these folks made richly beautiful music. The opening chorus of the opera, ‘O the pleasure of the plains,’ is truly one of the happiest choruses ever, and that evening it was just glorious.

As you may have guessed by now it was a concert production rather than a staged one, but some deft blocking and clever use of audience entrances and aisles, as well as the space onstage, made for some great theatrical effects. A few audience members took it all in stride when Polyphemus selected to ‘harass’ them during his forays into the hall. From the looks on their faces and their standing ovation at the conclusion, the audience had a great time, and so did we. Who could ask for more?

For a brief overview of the piece, here’s a YouTube clip of snippets from the Boston Early Music Festival’s 2010 production:

Now from a recorder player’s standpoint, Acis & Galatea is a particularly fun gig because it includes two arias with energetic, charming obbligato parts for a sopranino recorder. Two alto recorders are also featured as part of the ‘burbling brook’ effect in the final aria of the show, but the sopranino parts are really what most of us love to get a chance at.

Very early on in the piece Galatea sings Hush ye pretty warbling choir, an aria featuring one of Händel’s brilliant bird-imitative obbligatos. Here’s a version from 2011, featuring Evelyn Tubb as Galatea, and a recorder player who sadly doesn’t get a mention. I’m not sure if this is a rehearsal or a casual concert performance; the aria is preceded by its recitative.

The second sopranino obbligato accompanies Polyphemus as he sings the praises of Galatea in O ruddier than the cherry. The musical lines are deliberately a bit lumpy but still sweet, suitable for an ungainly, bad-tempered character who’s nevertheless been made a little less boorish by love. (Or lust.) Here’s an audio version featuring Huub Claessens, including the preceding recitative:

And here, to compare how very different productions can be, are two more versions of the same, this time with the video.

First, from 2011, featuring Matthew Rose and some canine taxidermy:

And now for a Spanish production, with the best-dressed Polyphemus I’ve ever seen. He’s very well behaved too, considering that A&G are carrying on in their pyjamas while he’s singing. No wardrobe credit, unfortunately.

You can find out about the Toronto Masque Theatre and their upcoming shows here:

And here’s a bonus track: another Händel ‘birdie’ aria, this time from Rinaldo and featuring soprano Laura Whalen, the Aradia Ensemble directed by Kevin Mallon, and recorder players Kathryn Montoya, Colin Savage (altos) and yours truly (sopranino). The whole opera is available on Naxos (8.660165-67).