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Monday, October 28, 2013

Opera Review: The Cyclops Who Loved Me

Le Concert d’Astrée plays the White Light Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Emmanuelle Haïm brought Le Concert d'Astrée to this year's White Light Festival.
Photo by Simon Fowler © 2013 Virgin Classics courtesy Lincoln Center.
George Frederic Handel was one of the most prolific composers of operas and oratorio in the 18th century, creating an enormous amount of material for the human voice. On Saturday night, Lincoln Center hosted one of the composer's rarely heard early works: Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, commissioned in Naples in 1708. The composer was just 22 years old. The work was presented by the French period ensemble Le Concert d'Astrée under the banner Metamorphosis, part of the performing arts organization's fourth annual White Light Festival.
Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is technically not an opera, but a dramatic serenata for three voices and chamber orchestra. Much of the plot--a myth concerning the love affair between the shepherd Acis and the sea nymph Galatea--and the former's murder at the hands of Polyphemus, a jealous Cyclops--was recycled ten years later into the pastorale Acis and Galatea although Handel wrote new music for that work. Both works draw their plot and inspiration from the Metamorphases of the Roman poet Ovid.

The serenata was preceded by Handel's Concerto Grosso No. 3, which served as a sort of curtain-raiser. The Concerto featured crisp playing on period instruments--violins played with old-style curved bows, oboes and recorders with simple finger-holes, and harpsichord and theorbo providing rhythmic accompaniment in the complete absence of any percussion. Conductor Emanuelle Haïm drove the music forward with an assured, relaxed style with taut rhythms and a sweet balance of her medium-sized forces. Impressive soloists were also given a chance to shine, in the Concerto and in the dramatic work that followed

With no chorus to provide musical contrast, Handel alternates arias and recitatives, observing the strict division between dramatic development and emotional reaction in a formal style that is a sort of template for his later operatic masterpieces. At this early age, Handel was an experienced man of the theater, writing his own operas and recycling the influence of the rich early opera culture in Venice. The libretto is highly stylized, with each singer representing not only a mythic personage, but a geographical feature: the Atis River, the sea itself, and in the case of the Cyclops, the volcano Mount Etna.

In her New York debut, soprano Lydia Teuscher brought a small but agile soprano to the role of Aci, singing the florid, twisting melodic lines that in baroque style indicate a strong, passionate hero. She was particularly moving in the love duets with her Galatea, the French contralto Delphine Galou. Handel combines both voices in imaginative ways, using the simple power of music to inject love and real human emotion into these mythic figures, freeing from their roles as geologic markers and creating a genuine conflict between the trio.

With Polyphemus Handel experimented in writing extensively for the low baritone voice. (One aria in the score demands a series of rumbling low D's. The rest of the writing is somewhat more conventional. In arias like "Fra l'ombre e gl'orrori," baritone Laurent Naouri conveyed the wild emotions of this one-eyed monster, whose violent assaults are meant to evoke the dangers of Mt. Etna and the constant threat of eruption. This French singer has a fine rich instrument with the essential low notes, and a dark stage presence well-suited for baritone-style villainy.

When the violent denouement finally happened, the death of Acis was merely a catalyst to bring the drama to a close with brilliant writing for the voice. Each character gets to react to Polyphemus' violent act. Acis himself is resurrected due to the power of the sea god, and becomes a stream flowing constantly into the abode of his water-dwelling girlfriend. The final chorus, delivered with the aid of two bright period  trumpets, chamions the ideal of fidelity, especially when you're a water nymph who is pursuing a shepherd while fending off a Cyclops.
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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.