Review of Opera Atelier’s Acis and Galatea

Opera Atelier's Acis and Galatea
Photo: Bruce Zinger / Mireille Asselin & Thomas Macleay / Handel's Acis and Galatea

First, I have to admit that I came to Acis and Galatea last night with a clouded mind. Over the last month I’ve done a lot of thinking about performance tradition, the boundaries of style, and the question of who, precisely, owns the “meaning” of an opera (the correct answer, for my money, is “no one,” not even the composer, but there are many who believe otherwise). Acis and Galatea, like all Opera Atelier productions, is produced in a very specific and highly stylized way that attempts in some ways to evoke the performance conventions of the period in which it was composed.

Of course, “period accuracy” is a slippery goal and part of Opera Atelier’s genius lies in carefully choosing which aspects of Baroque and 18th century performance to preserve and which to dispense with. Co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski nodded to this notion in his opening remarks, telling the audience that while they started out as a company “obsessed with period style”, that they’ve come to believe in the adage that “style is not the bull’s-eye; style is what you use to take aim.” I would like to hear more from him about how he sees his aims as having changed – where the bull’s-eye is now – and in what areas they’ve chosen to sacrifice period authenticity in favour of a different vision.

I can make guesses about this to some extent. Part of what makes Opera Atelier productions so visually unique – and what, perhaps, I love about them the most – is the very precise and stylized stage movements of the performers, meant to imitate the style of gestural acting characteristic of the Baroque. The singers pose as though for paintings, each arm movement and head tilt suggesting emotion while maximizing their beauty. And a commitment to visual beauty is always on display: not only in the prominence of ballet and the soft lighting but in the casting of young, slim, and attractive singers clothed in very revealing costumes. This last item pushes OA productions to the heights of sensual deliciousness while giving ammo to critics who sometimes dismiss them as lightweight and vulgar (the display of male beauty, in particular, seems to reliably ruffle feathers).

So, where does Acis and Galatea fit in to all this? I wouldn’t call it lightweight, but it is certainly light – light as a balloon that threatens every minute to blow away but always, to overwork the metaphor, bobs merrily along at the end of its string. All of the aforementioned OA hallmarks are present, meaning that the production is beautiful to look at and staged with deftness and intelligence. As I noted in an earlier DVD review, A&G isn’t always an easy work to like. While a lot of operas might be described as dramatically static, Acis and Galatea is static in the extreme. There are perhaps two or three actual plot events and they’re clustered near the end. The rest plays almost like a song cycle or collection of arias rather than a drama.

In this production the vast spaces are filled with dancing (much more prominent in the first half than the second) and comedy. The choice to play Polyphemus for laughs is an interesting one, and I’m not entirely sure that it works. While it does enliven the drama, it does wind up robbing the finale of some of its gravitas. Both director and tenor Lawrence Wiliford deserve kudos for making the character of Damon make sense as a participant in the drama, and all the actors on stage display a charming vulnerability.

In conclusion? Think of it as a series of tableaux, both musical and visual, and enjoy all the beauty on display. Any attempt to inject more drama into Acis and Galatea would have popped the balloon.

Acis And Galatea Final from Douglas Brown on Vimeo.

Other opinions:

Globe and Mail:”The four singers were for the most part exemplary, headed by the consummately brilliant and nimble tenor Lawrence Wiliford as the Ariel-like Damon”

Toronto Star: “Saturday night’s opening performance of George Frideric Handel’s sweet pastoral Acis and Galatea merged excellent musicianship, fine stagecraft and a keen sense of movement.”

Mooney on Theatre: “This is the kind of opera that anyone could see and enjoy.”

Art & Culture Maven: “It’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening of Baroque Opera to continue the company’s longstanding legacy.”

James Karas Reviews: “this is a superb production in period style that is worth seeing more than once. By happenstance, I saw it twice and enjoyed it even more the second time.”

4 comments

  1. Nancy

    Really interesting review Cecily. You have so much insight and your commentary is very thoughtful. I find that during the show I don’t want it to stop, especially during the 2nd act when Damon sings “Consider Fond Shepherds.”

    • Cecily

      I love “Must I my Acis Still Bemoan” and probably my favourite aria is “O Ruddier than the Cherry”. The music is some of Handel’s best I think.

  2. Definitely the Opera

    William Christie, in an interview: “I’d say I’m a specialist because I’ve learned things that are appropriate to music. That doesn’t mean I’m authentic. I would not like to be saddled with that description. “Authentic” means I am going to produce this particular dish of rice in the Valencia style — arroz a banda — exactly the way it’s done in Valencia. I’m sitting in Sydney, Australia. That’s trying to be authentic. You get Spanish olive oil, Spanish rice, but then you have to fly in the Spanish fish. Can you do that musically? No. Can you say really I’m doing authentic Vivaldi? “Authentic” would mean it’s exactly the way he wanted it. And how do you know? You read these idiotic reviews on record jackets, where they say, “This is being performed in an authentic way.” What does that mean?”

    (In ‘Living Opera’, ed. Joshua Jampol, UOP 2010 – just reading it and came across this)

    • Cecily

      Neat quote. And yes, I agree that “authenticity” isn’t really all that useful of a concept or desirable as an aim. I do believe that borrowing heavily from performance traditions of the past – especially those that have fallen out of common practice – can lead to very interesting results, though.