Tagged: Acis and Galatea

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.”

DVD Review: Acis and Galatea, Royal Opera House, Opus Arte

Opus Arte's Acis and Galatea
DVD Cover for Acis and Galatea, Opus Arte

[Full Disclosure: Naxos has provided me with a promotional copy of this DVD]

Since Opera Atelier will be producing Acis and Galatea this fall (see some rehearsal footage here), and since I’ve only listened to the music a few times without becoming familiar with it as a stage work, I was quite excited to see this performance on DVD. I’m happy to report that it’s enchanting, and has contributed greatly to my understanding of the opera.

Acis and Galatea is full of achingly beautiful music, but even the most cursory investigation into its history reveals that it presents a number of genre and performance problems. It exists in multiple versions, spanning multiple musico-theatrical (is that a word?) genres. It was originally written as a not-quite-opera – a masque or serenata, where a series of arias are linked by a narrative thread but missing any stage direction or recitative. In a serenata, the songs are sung in sequence but not acted out on stage. Later the work was adapted as a longer, more fully-staged opera.

The result is that, when presented as an opera as in this performance, it’s difficult to overcome its static nature. Arias are abundant but scenes with plot development are sparse, so it takes a long time for things to happen and the narrative arc is weak.

This production from the Royal Opera House attempts to overcome this lack of dramatic action by adding it back in the form of dance. The vast majority of arias are accompanied by dancing, which creates visual interest while the singers are mostly stationary. The dancing is really one of the highlights of the DVD – it’s in a style that, to my untrained eye, incorporates elements of classical ballet and modern dance. Arabesques mingle with hip-swinging and shoulder-rolling, the ballet dancers are clad in bodysuits matching the color of their skin, and their movements are always fluid, undulating, and sensual. I found the choreography hypnotic and always beautiful to look at.

The sets are sparse, presumably to make room for the dancing, and the costumes of the singers are interestingly modern. Acis dresses just like my high school crush and has pretty much the same haircut; the chorus reminds me of my coworkers; and Polyphemus, with his beard, belt, and belly, would look right at home playing guitar in a Brooklyn indie-rock band. I found this rather charming.

Danielle de Niese is an excellent Galatea, vocally assured and a charismatic stage presence. At one point in the opera she even performs an extended ballet sequence – and, though clearly not a ballerina, is graceful and convincing. Charles Workman as Acis is physically stuffer but vocally robust and agile. And the performance really springs to life with the entrance of Matthew Rose as Polyphemus, who dominates the stage – allowing for the fact that he has more dramatic possibilities to exploit, as the only character in the opera who actually does anything. That said, I would have liked better articulation of the passagework from all three principals, who sometimes handled the runs with breathiness.

Included with the DVD is a booklet explaining the performance history of Acis and Galatea, which helps explain the genre weirdness. Sound and picture quality is excellent (puzzlingly to this non-audiophile, there is a surround-sound option), and the subtitles are carefully placed so as to be unobtrusive. It’s available for purchase on Amazon.

A Sneak Peak at Acis and Galatea; or, YouTube commenters are (sometimes) prudes

Last summer I attended a performance of the American Ballet Theater’s Romeo and Juliet, and wound up sitting next to someone active in the dance world. My ticket was for standing room, but she plucked me from purgatory and gave me a spare ticket to a much better seat next to hers (“you look like a dance person”, was her explanation for picking me over the other standees). She seemed rather disappointed upon finding out I was an opera person instead of a dance person, and explained to me that she didn’t really enjoy going to the opera because the singers don’t move properly on stage.

Available on YouTube is some rehearsal footage of a scene from Opera Atelier’s upcoming production of Acis and Galatea. Thomas Macleay as Acis sings “Love in her eyes sits playing” to his Galatea while the voice of co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski is heard in the background giving him directions. Both of the company’s Artistic Directors come from the dance world, and the detailed attention to movement evident in this clip makes me wonder if they share my ticket benefactress’ frustration with conventional opera direction.

What caught my attention the most in this clip are the abundant gestures of physical affection. Acis and Galatea embrace, kiss, and caress each others’ face and hair during the aria. Many stage opera couples, though meant to be passionately in love, do little more than hold hands with the occasional side hug for duets. A singer playing Carmen might make a few theatrical gestures meant to signify lust, but these tend to be unconvincing (Don José typically just sits there). And if the love story is unconvincing, the opera often loses a lot of its steam.

Some, apparently, prefer things that way. I was surprised to find a mini-controversy in the comment thread for this clip, instigated by one Miss Cecchetti:

Oh yes, the breast-groping and french kissing is very baroque theatre isn’t it?

Mind you it surprises me seeing Pynkoski set this much physical contact on a male-female couple. He usually reserves that for the male-male couples, as in their production of Iphigenie.

This seems like sheer prudishness (not to mention blatant homophobia) to me – this scene, and what I recall from Iphigenie, would be rated PG at most. As for period accuracy, while my knowledge is admittedly spotty, the 18th-century plays I’ve encountered have generally been on the bawdy side and classical mythology is riddled with debauchery of all varieties.

I went googling around and dug up an old interview with Pynkoski wherein he talks about the importance of movement and emotion in his opera direction. I recommend reading it – it gives a lot of clues to why OA’s productions consistently seem so different from most opera I’ve seen, and how they manage to seem vivid and new despite the period stylings. It opens up a very different path for Making Opera Relevant, one that I think is just as viable as putting everyone in leather trenchcoats.

Gods Bless Opera Atelier

Opera Atelier’s 2010-2011 season – their 25th – features two operas I have never seen or heard, and know almost nothing about: Handel’s Acis and Galatea and Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito. This is a good thing – it shows they don’t feel the need to shore up ticket sales by mounting something comfortingly familiar, and it gives me the chance to see two operas I might otherwise ignore if not for their efforts.

Let’s look at the blurbs for these:

Acis and Galatea, Handel’s ravishing pastorale, depicts Ovid’s tale of the water nymph Galatea and her doomed love for the Arcadian shepherd Acis.  The opera weaves together a story of startling sensuality and tragedy blended with an ironic sense of humour – told through some of Handel’s most sublime music.

and

In Mozart’s lifetime, La Clemenza di Tito was considered “his most perfect work.” It enjoyed enormous success in Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Naples, St. Petersburg, Paris and London. Opera Atelier’s proud to present a sumptuous new production which will mark the opera’s North American premiere on period instruments.

Desperate intrigues, unrequited love and heart stopping reversals of fortune punctuate this thrilling story taken directly from Roman history, in which the Roman aristocrat, Vitellia plots the assassination of Titus – Emperor of Rome.

Yes, this sounds intriguing. But I must confess that a big – perhaps over-large – part of my affection for OA comes from their advertising photography. Just click over to the page for La Clemenza di Tito and gaze for a while at that Vanity Fair-esque banner. How sexy! How witty! How stylish! I want to hang it on my wall.

Click over to their photos page for other equally-impressive images.