Hiply Handel

Oh, my goddess: Christine Brandes is the semi-divine Galatea in the Glimmerglass Opera's production of Acis and Galatea.Photo: George Mott

How to stage Handel’s Acis and Galatea? Apparently that question never worried the composer, who seemed satisfied with lavish sets but no action at all when he introduced this pastoral masque to London in 1732. By then the score was fourteen years old, already a hit, and soon to become the most popular of all Handel’s works during his lifetime. From that day to this, Acis has been most frequently heard in concert, but the urge to find some sort of dramatic context for such an enchanting piece continues to be irresistible. Most of the stagings I’ve seen have been pretty sad, but the new production currently on view at Glimmerglass in Cooperstown and due to arrive at the New York City Opera next spring breaks the curse.

Well, it did for me, although I heard some muted grumbling after the first performance. Yes, director Mark Lamos has made free with time and place, and anyone who still feels that updating automatically disqualifies a production from being taken seriously need read no further.

No doubt more than a few hearts sank when the curtain rose on a scene that suggested an episode from Gilligan’s Island or a summer’s day in Montauk: a chorus of bare-midriffed nymphs in halter tops, and shepherd swains in white duck trousers and sailor caps, tossing beach balls and lolling on reclining canvas chairs. Paul Steinberg’s set was also not reassuring: an enormous blue statue of Eros perched on top of a glittering purple mound of earth with a few metallic trees in front of a corrugated cyclorama. We seemed very far from Ovid’s tale from the Metamorphoses, in which the semi-divine Galatea transforms her lover Acis into a bubbling brook after he has been crushed to death by the jealous cyclops Polyphemus. That is unlikely to happen in the here and now, even among the upscale young set in the Hamptons.

But Lamos seems to have felt that privileged American youth at play would provide an effective entrée into Handel’s world of innocent young love, and he set out to prove it. Acis (John McVeigh) and Galatea (Christine Brandes) are presented as two gorgeous teenagers, good kids, and obviously crazy about each other despite the warnings of Acis’s well-meaning if rather geeky friend Damon (John Tessier), an intellectual type in horn-rimmed glasses and Bermuda shorts. The lovers pay him no mind as they nuzzle and pet on a swing, an exquisitely choreographed love scene set to one of Handel’s happiest inspirations – music this deliciously descriptive of youthful infatuation will not be heard again until Verdi’s Falstaff.

The wittiest inventions are reserved for the monster Polyphemus (Dean Elzinga), here a deus ex machina disguised as a working-class mechanic in grimy overalls and miner’s hat with a huge Cyclops-eye lamp. Operatic giants always pose a problem, but Lamos’s solution could not be more ingenious: Polyphemus appears as a looming presence in a miniature version of the main set, where he wreaks his havoc and destruction. Even this is done with a light touch, mirroring music that depicts an ogre more humorous than menacing as Handel comments satirically on his own opera seria bass villains.

The final apotheosis is simple but effective: A still-life vision of Acis, as Galatea sings a ravishing meditation on her transformed beloved, now a limpid stream murmuring, “Still thy gentle love.” If only all Baroque operas could be reimagined with such sensitivity to their essential spirit.

Those who still disagree can always close their eyes and enjoy a superior musical performance led by conductor Graeme Jenkins. If Tessier’s nerdy Damon is rather more elegantly sung than McVeigh’s frat-house Acis, the imbalance is not serious enough to upset the dramatic perspectives. Brandes’s Galatea improves as the performance proceeds, and by the end her unblemished soprano and liquid phrasing are positively magical. Elzinga’s disco bumps and grinds in “O ruddier than the cherry” are a bit much, but he sings this coloratura bass showpiece with amazing tonal lightness and pinpoint precision.

for its third production of the summer, Glimmerglass took a chance with Strauss’s Salome and skirted disaster. The problem was not so much what many feared, that an orchestra of 63 compared with the 100-plus musicians required by the original score would sound deficient in power, color, and symphonic sweep. Stewart Robertson actually conducted a trim, cogently organized reading of the composer-approved reduced version, and there is always much to be gained by closer contact with an opera in which details, both in the orchestra pit and on the stage, are so precisely calculated.

Unfortunately, there just wasn’t much offered worth contemplating, certainly not Elizabeth Byrne’s jejune performance of the title role. Strauss famously wanted a Salome with the figure of a teenager and the voice of an Isolde – wishful thinking, obviously, but Byrne never comes close on either score. Her soprano is a blowzy instrument that pitches notes uncertainly and has a tendency to spread under pressure. The words also went largely unnuanced, and her whole physical approach to the role lacked grace, allure, and dramatic specificity. Salome may not exactly be a one-role opera, but without a provocative heroine there doesn’t seem much point in doing it at all.

Director Leon Major inflicts no radical ideas on the cast, but neither has he come up with anything that might give his production any special flavor or texture. Ned Barth bellows out Jokanaan’s curses and warnings, Kenneth Riegel falls into the old trap of raucously yelling the role of Herod rather than singing it, and Robynne Redmon is virtually invisible as the salacious Herodias.

Andrew Jackness’s spare, flavorless set is strictly budget biblical, and Johann Stegmeir’s peculiar costumes are downright enigmatic – for some reason the Cappadocian page, slave, and soldiers are all uniformly dressed to resemble space-age travelers. This unhappy Glimmerglass production is next headed to the Boston Lyric Opera, which has my sympathies.

Hiply Handel