Acis and Galatea

New York City Opera
27 March 2001
Georg Friedrich Händel

Never having heard the Sutherland recording -- which must be about 35-40 years old -- I really looked forward to this opera at NYCO Tuesday evening. My first experience of this work carried no disappointments whatsoever. Based upon one of Ovid’s Metamorpheses, this tale of sea-nymph, Galatea, who loves and is loved in return by the shepherd Acis. Unfortunately, she is also loved by the giant Polyphemus, who crushes Acis in a jealous rage after Galatea spurns his affections. But love springs eternal when Galatea immortalizes her beloved shepherd by transforming him into a flowing fountain. This production, conducted magnificently by Handel specialist, Jane Glover, was performed on a single set—or perhaps, one and one quarter sets (but more about that later). It was also dramatically intense and heartfelt, very well acted, and beautifully sung.

Christine Brandes
William Burden
John Tessier
Dean Elzinga
The male choristers were described as shepherds or swains; the females, nymphs

* * * * *

The set and costumes:  A hillock upstage right surrounded by two or three delicate, metallic trees and topped with a reclining blue statue of what looked like Cupid. The remainder of the stage was set to represent a field (or beach) at a resort during a summer vacation. When not walking around, prancing, or playing beach-ball games with the male choristers, the ladies sat or reclined in beach chairs, loungers and the like. All of them were dressed in white, halter-top sundresses with a wide opening in front to reveal white knee-length shorts with white turbans on their heads and white espadrilles. Galatea, first discovered upstage right on a swing descended from the flies, wore no turban, her shoulder-length hair hanging freely.
Acis and the male choristers wore chinos, sandals and casual shirts, with Damon wearing tan Bermuda-type shorts instead of full-length trousers. What looked like a dirty gray union suit clothed the “giant” Polyphemus whose red hair was combed in a vertical “punk” style and who wore a red lantern (his single eye?) in the center of his forehead. When he first appears, in the second act, he descends from the flies in a miniature copy of the set, from which he makes menacing gestures and even cartwheels onto the regular stage. A really cute idea, but it did not work to make him look more like a giant (or was it a dramatic convention for giants in Handel’s time?).

Christine Brandes achieved a sweetness that was never cloying as Galatea and demonstrated her total mastery of Handelian style. I’m sure that Sutherland added some heart-stopping trills and coloratura to her arias and duets, but Brandes is also no slouch in that area, and acquitted herself with great charm and style. Furthermore, Brandes’ acting far outweighs that of Sutherland.
William Burden is remembered as the loin-cloth-garbed, loving companion of Orestes in the NYCO production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride a season or two ago. He, too, was ideal in his role.
The remaining two cast members were making their NYCO débuts in their roles. John Tessier’s light and easily heard tenor voice overcame all the coloratura pitfalls called for by the role of Damon, the “reasonable” guy who advises both Acis and Polyphemus, and who helps Galatea through her grief at the death of Acis.
Even though he is responsible for the death of Acis, Polyphemus is played as the comic character he really is, and Dean Elzinga used his attractive bass-baritone voice to great comic effect in his big recitative and aria, “I rage, I burn...Oh, ruddier than the cherry.”

All in all, NYCO’s Acis and Galatea provided this opera-goer with great pleasure and an escape from the cares of jobs, relationships, subways and crowded cities in a work from which he left with a smile and a feeling that he had been charmed enough to deal more easily with the pressures of today’s society.

-- Howard of Griswold Hall   

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2001 Howard Levin

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