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MAKING THE OLD NEW: Boston Festival brings Handel gem to Friends of Chamber Music series

In what promises to be one of the most significant musical events of the Kansas City season, this week the Boston Early Music Festival brings Handel’s Acis and Galatea to the Friends of Chamber Music’s chamber series. This semi-staged production—at 8 p.m. on April 1st at the Folly Theater—strives for historical authenticity in all aspects.

It features singers Teresa Wakim as Galatea, Aaron Sheehanas Acis, Jason McStoots as Damon, Zachary Wilder as Coridon and Douglas Williams as Polyphemus. Paul O’Detteand Stephen Stubbs are musical directors, and Gilbert Blin is stage director.

Part of Blin’s conceit in the action is that each of the characters also represents one of the personages present at the first performance at the Duke of Chando’s estate: Acis and Galatea are the Duke and Duchess, Damon is Handel, and Coridon and Polyphemus are the poets John Gay and Alexander Pope, who wrote the text of the masque-turned-opera. We recently spoke with Paul O’Dette, artistic co-director of the Boston Early Music Festival and one of the leading lutenists/Baroque guitarists of our time, about the production.

The Independent: Where does Acis and Galatea, and particularly this 1718 version, fit into Handel’s output?

Paul O’Dette: The version of Acis that is known and loved and performed throughout the world is a late revision of the piece from 1732, and the version that we’re doing is the original version that he composed in 1718 for Cannons, a stately home owned by the Duke of Chandos. At a certain point after the initial operatic successes in London, after Handel returned from Italy, he found himself in a situation where he couldn’t perform operas for several years. So he went to Cannons and wrote for the Duke of Chandos, and Acis and Galatea was written for this household as a chamber work. It was probably originally performed outdoors and unstaged. Cannons had a spectacular garden with a magnificent fountain in it, and while it’s not documented exactly where this was first performed, it would make sense, given the plot, that this might have been performed in front of the fountain—because in the end of the story, after the monster Polyphemus kills Acis, Galatea turns him into a running river, and so you could imagine that being quite effective in front of the fountain.

In any case this 1718 version, which had not been performed in modern times until a couple of years ago, was conceived for five singers who sing the arias and the choruses. There’s no separate chorus, and there’s a chamber ensemble consisting of two violins, two winds—oboes trading off on recorders for some arias—and continuo. … There’s no viola part. What’s interesting about this version is that as a chamber ensemble you have a lot more flexibility, a lot more possibilities of rhetorical contrasts in tempo, dynamics, timbre and articulation—things that are hard to manage in a full orchestral and choral texture. But what you also notice in this earlier version is that the choruses are definitely designed to be sung one on a part, because they’re quite virtuosic. The comment that Handel made in 1732—that the revision was the first time that it was ever performed in a staged performance—implies that Cannons was indeed a concert performance, possibly with some gestures and some entrances and exits. And one of the challenges we found in staging the 1718 version is that at one point at the end when Acis has been killed, his line in the next chorus is sung by the same person who sang Acis. … So what one has to do in this scene is, when Acis is changed into a river, an apotheosis whereby he is brought back to life so he can sing in the final chorus, “Galatea, dry thy tears.”

For all of us who knew the later version, which is performed quite frequently, it was quite a revelation the first time we sat down and read through this. Because the textures are much clearer, and somehow the clarity and the virtuosity and the vitality of the writing really comes to life in a way that is not possible when you have six singers on a part, or five first violins playing. I’m quite convinced that this was Handel’s idea of the piece, that he designed the piece for these textures. And in order to revise this and give it new life—which he did with several of his early pieces in the 1730s including the oratorio Esther—once these pieces were rewritten for larger-scale performances he made these compromises, adding viola parts and thinking in terms of orchestral texture, and having a full chorus.

Tell us a little about the conceit of the BEMF staging.

This was an idea that our stage director Gilbert Blin came up with. … We know that the Duke of Chandos was a great art collector, and had quite famous paintings by people like (Nicolas) Poussin and others in his drawing room. And there are a couple of wonderful paintings by (Marco) Ricci of a rehearsal of an opera in England … where the performers in an opera are seated in a drawing room with very beautiful paintings surrounding them, and some of the members of the household are seated observing the rehearsal of the opera. And Gilbert put that together with the image of the art collection at Cannons and thought, ‘How about if they were having a rehearsal for what was going to be an outdoor performance, but it was raining, so they held the rehearsal indoors surrounded by the beautiful paintings?’ There are (apparent) references to the members of the household there in the plot, and Handel may have had the members of the household in mind. So that the Duke of Chandos is Acis, his wife Cassandra is played by Galatea, and Alexander Pope, who had a crush on Cassandra, is Polyphemus—so he’s the jealous one throughout. To me that’s absolutely convincing as an idea for staging this. We found when we performed this the first time in Boston two years ago that some people in the audience didn’t really pick up on it right away, and once you know that’s the conceit it becomes absolutely clear what’s going on. Then to add a bit of color and spontaneity and believability about the creation of this piece, the character of Damon is Handel himself, and throughout the performance he’s making little revisions and changes to the score and handing us new versions of pieces for us to play—just as indeed we knew they were doing at the time, revising constantly.

What about the physical look of the production?

We’ve actually ordered, from an art reproduction company in Europe, full-size reproductions of the paintings that were in the Duke of Chandos’ collection. And those are on the walls and on easels and so on. What was really interesting in Boston was the extent to which members of the audience recognized a number of these famous paintings, but hadn’t been aware they had been in the Duke of Chandos’ collection.

How much do we know about stage direction of the 18th century, in terms of recreating authentic gestures, movement, entrances and exits and so forth?

We know a huge amount. There are quite a few manuals describing what gestures are appropriate for which emotion. They are, or were at the time, a kind of sign language: It was almost like showing the audience along with the declamation of the text, helping them to understand the meaning by making gestures that provided an image of each word or each emotion. We have a tremendous amount of detailed information about how the stages were set up and how the sets were made and how the stage machinery worked and what kinds of special effects were created. Of course for this production we don’t really have sets and changeable scenery because we call it a semi-staged production. … We created a kind of set by the use of tables and the paintings and so on, to create some theatric qualities, but we don’t actually have sets that change from one scene to the next.

We do know a lot about how Baroque opera was staged and also about movement: Movement was related to dance, and as part of the production we have a dancer/choreographer/movement coach who has worked a lot with the singers on certain ways of moving, certain ways of posture and ways of relating from one character to the next. Of course Gilbert does a lot of that also but it’s great to have a dance expert there to help out.

That is part of our philosophy at the Boston Early Music Festival: We believe that it is important to consider the entire piece in its historical context. If we’re going to go to the trouble of learning about historical musical performance practice, and getting the right instruments set up in the right way and playing with historical techniques—if we are trying to get that side as close as we can get to realize the color, the character, the spirit of the music as envisioned at the time, that the staging should also be a part of that. To me this is absolutely self-evident and I’m still amazed that we seem to be in such a tiny minority of organizations that do that. Because the standard thing today is to have a distinguished Baroque orchestra and a conductor and group of singers who are steeped in historical performance practice—and then there’s a post-modern staging! There are stage directors who find that disconnect exciting and tension-producing, but to me it doesn’t make any sense at all. It would be like taking the Cathedral of Notre Dame and putting flashing lights on it because you don’t think it’s good enough as it stands. So we really do look at costumes, gesture, movement, all of the things that happen on the stage when we do full-scale staged productions, as we do every two years at the BEMF.

Is it possible to make Acis and Galatea, at least, into real human beings in this piece?

I think they have to be, because although in this context—this sort of pastoral, with nymphs and shepherds—it’s easy to view these as kind of characterless cardboard replicas rather than real human beings. But the emotions that are expressed in the text and in the design of the libretto, and in the music as well, are very human. … I don’t think you can do Handel’s music justice by creating a kind of neutral nymph or shepherd: They have to be people who happen to be in an Arcadian pastoral setting but have all of the depths of emotion that any other character would have—including Polyphemus.

Are there aspects of 18th-century stage action that people might find foreign or unusual?

I don’t think so, not in Gilbert’s staging. One of the problems with Baroque gesture as practiced often today is that if you simply look at the gesture manuals—and see for the word “sad” you make this gesture and for the word “anger” you make another gesture—some people who have attempted re-creations of Baroque stagings tend to create stick figures, where they go from one gesture into another gesture into another gesture and there are no transitions. But what you realize if you look at paintings is that, by glimpsing snapshots like this as you have in a painting, you can see that there’s a fluidity of movement from one moment to the next, and that these are not puppet-like stick-figures. … The elegance of movement, which of course everyone at the time learned, was part of manners: You learned how to hold yourself, you learned how to walk, you learned how to stand, how to sit in an elegant way, so that it looks completely natural and seamless. It’s perhaps more formal than modern movement … so it may look a little more elegant and more formal that what we’re used to. But it will look quite natural, instead of archaic and stylized in some way. Historically based movement and gesture should look as natural to the audience as historical performance of the music sounds.

It might be of interest to mention that the orchestra—the chamber ensemble accompanying the music as it were—is onstage. We have the melody instruments on one side and the continuo band on the other side, and we create a symmetrical space through which the singers can come between the two groups, or can go up to either side of the groups. So we are right in the middle of the action. There is no conductor: Steven Stubbs and I direct the music and prepare everything in rehearsals so that in performance it functions as an organic organism that is like a chamber ensemble. … The instrumentalists are in all black, so that the singers and their costumes stand out more. Everyone is onstage throughout. There are no entrances and exits. Gilbert wanted to have a believable situation as at Cannons, where the people are observing their colleagues when they’re not performing themselves.

How would you prepare someone for this who knew very little of Handel’s music, perhaps just Messiah?

There is, especially in the first half, a very pastoral, easy-going quality to the music that is lighter than some of the music inMessiah. Then it becomes much more dramatic in the second half, with a lot more contrasts along the way. It is some of the most tuneful music that Handel ever wrote. It’s not an accident that this became one of his most famous pieces, because every single aria is a gem that just runs like a tape loop through your mind for the next three weeks after a performance. Handel had gone from Germany—where he learned how to write operas in Hamburg alongside Mattheson and Keiser—and went off to Italy to see what people like Alessandro Scarlatti and Corelli were doing.  He learned how to write in this fiery, dramatic, virtuosic-crazy Italian style of 1708-09, then he went to London and started the opera there and applied what he had learned in Italy. But when he arrived in London he found a taste for a much simpler more melody-influenced kind of music. So for those people who know Handel through Messiah and the Water Music, this will be very familiar … just beautiful, memorable tunes that work their way into your heart and stay there forever.

Bass-baritone Douglas Williams also spoke to us about his portrayal of Polyphemus in this production:

Douglas Williams: Polyphemus is often done in a kind of country-bumpkin kind of way, and in this production … we’ve explored bringing out a real human and tragic element to this character, and also a very isolated and kind of forsaken aspect. And we’re able to do that partly because when we involve the character of Alexander Pope—he was himself deformed and a kind of social outcast, and frustrated lover also—that comes into this portrayal of Polyphemus. It’s always Pope standing up and singing as if he were play Polyphemus, so there’s sort of intentional ambiguity throughout the performance. … And that certainly makes this otherwise very crystal-clear pastoral operetta much richer, and certainly unique.

There’s an awareness of history (in the production) but this is by no means an attempt to re-create the very first Acis and Galatea, because there’s nothing known about that first performance except that it happened in the summer, and that it happened at the estate of the Duke of Chandos.

All of us have worked with this company before, and we’re used to doing these sort of period performances. So our movements are as noble people of the 18th century would have moved, and certainly the music is very historically informed as far as the choices in ornamentation and style, as you know the orchestra is playing on period instruments. So yes, there’s an awareness of history throughout.

All five of the singers are onstage all the time, and when we’re not singing we’re on the periphery of the staging and we’re active. Either Handel is sort of scribbling away at his manuscript or I’m sort of brooding and occasionally writing little poems and love letters off on my side of the stage. So that’s certainly unique in any kind of theatrical performance, in that all the characters remain on stage the entire time. It requires a focus and intensity unique among any performances that I’ve done.

This is one of Handel’s finest works. The arias are exceptionally beautiful, just one after the other: Certainly among his operas I don’t think you find such a cache of incredible arias, they’re all just complete winners. And then what’s also really special is that you see five great soloists then merge into a perfectly blended ensemble, because there’s no chorus in this version … we make up the choir.

For tickets to Acis and Galatea call 816-561-9999 or go to the Friends’ site at www.chambermusic.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor of The Independent, send email to phorsley@sbcglobal.net.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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