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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Opera Review: A Well-Dressed and Interesting Monster

Handel comes back to Mostly Mozart with Acis and Galatea.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Happy three: Thomas Cooley, Yulia van Doren and Michael Williams
in Acis and Galatea at the Mostly Mozart Festival.
Not every opera composer got to tell the same story twice.

Georg Frederic Handel did though, with Acis and Galatea, the sole operatic offering of this summer's Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center. The opera contains some of the composer's most inspired late music for the stage and remains one of the composer's most beloved works.

Like his earlier dramatic serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (written in Italy when the composer was just 22 and staged last year by Lincoln Center at the White Light Festival) this opera retells the disastrous mythological love triangle between the shepherd Acis, the nymph Galatea and the jealous cyclops Polyphemus, whose addiction to rock-throwing temper tantrums costs Acis his life. However, this work has much richer orchestration, the incorporation of dance sequences and a full chorus to comment on the action.

As Acis, Thomas Cooley had an appealing stage presence. He displayed a bluff, country-boy attitude and a nimble tenor. Mr. Cooley also had little problem moving through director Mark Morris' forest of fast-moving dancers. Soprano Yulia van Doren sang with sweet tone and an angelic, agile voice, but kept getting swallowed by the cavernous acoustic and was completely inaudible at times. Perhaps the multi-million dollar "concert ceiling" (a product of the renovation of this building in recent years) was not being used.

The first act of Acis has little in the way of dramatic conflict, climaxing with the chorus "Happy we." The conflict arrived in the form of Polyphemus, (baritone Douglas Williams) who injected some needed swagger and sex appeal into the proceedings. If anything, Mr. Morris' direction made light of the cyclops, presenting him as a sporty playboy type concerned with satisfying his inner one-eyed monster. Mr. Williams sang with a fine, light instrument entirely appropriate to the baroque orchestration.

Acis is a pastoral opera with extensive dances celebrating the happiness of the shepherd, his nymph lover and various sheep in the meadow. Here, dancers, choreography and stage direction were all provided by Mark Morris, whose previous operatic credentials include the current Met production of Orpheus et Euridyce. The costumes (by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi) diaphanous, billowing skirts for the men, diaphanous, billowing skirt-and-top combinations for the women--sure to be all the rage next summer) were key to achieving a spare, elegant minimalism with lots of movement. (This approach that would have been entirely appropriate at the late New York City Opera.)

It was somehow appropriate then that this performance, featuring the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under the baton of Nicholas McGegan was at the former New York State theater, the longtime home of that opera company. City Opera was wholly responsible for the Handel revival of the late 20th century, with productions of Xerxes, Partenope and Ariodante that introduced this city to a wholly unfamiliar style of opera.

This was the first opera performance in this Lincoln Center Theater in some time. As the house is now almost entirely given over to the performance of ballets, the famed dance-friendly acoustics (originally designed by George Balanchine) continued to be troubling for the singers, although chorus and orchestra came across clean and crisp.

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