I knew last Saturday's Boston Early Music Festival production of Handel's Acis and Galatea was going to be wonderful; and indeed it was. (Alas, it was a one-night stand, or I'd be telling you how to order tickets.) By now BEMF's track record is so sterling it's almost monotonous, and what's more, the director of last summer's ravishing L'incoronazione di Poppea, Gilbert Blin, was back to do the honors for Acis. I worried a bit when it was announced that the luminous soprano Amanda Forsythe (who pretty much carried Opera Boston's Tancredi) had been sidelined by her sinuses, but even in the opening chorus it was clear that her replacement, Teresa Wakim (at left, with Aaron Sheehan) was going to be transporting in her own way.
The only surprise of the evening, it turned out, was the jump in theatrical sophistication that BEMF made with this production. The festival's operatic offerings are dedicated to replicating lost performance, as well as musical, styles - a worthy goal in a world led astray by the likes of Peter Sellars. Still, some BEMF offerings have come across as fancy-dress balls in wigs and heels - delightful in their detail, but artistically empty, as the historical frame which gave their tropes traction back in the day has long since vanished. For those of us who aren't actual monarchists, these productions sometimes looked like mere exercises in nostalgia for Versailles or Vienna.
But how to navigate a fresh course through historic material, while avoiding the shoals of vapid, "revolutionary" schtick à la Sellars, is a thornier question than many artistic conservatives might suppose. Director Blin found a way out of the conundrum, however, with his clever concept for Acis. Taking a hint from Stoppard's Arcadia and Byatt's Possession, Blin conjured a vision of the original premiere of the opera as a "frame" for the current performance. Of course this was of conceptual interest largely because Handel composed the opera during a famous episode of British artistic history - the short flowering of "Cannons" (below), a country house dedicated by its owner (the Duke of Chandos) to the flourishing of the arts, and famous for its décor, gardens, and art collection, as well as the literary and musical circle which orbited it (including Handel, Alexander Pope, and John Gay).
The façade of the lost, legendary Cannons.
Blin cleverly filled the small cast of Acis with many of these luminaries. The nymph Galatea and her swain were, I assumed, the Duke and Duchess of Chandos, while Pope seemed to take the part of the Cyclops, Polyphemus (appropriately enough, as the poet was eventually to throw metaphorical stones at the establishment), and Handel himself (you could tell from the wig) stood in for Acis's common-sensical sidekick, Damon. Blin's specific conceit - that we were watching a dress rehearsal, say - was left deliberately vague, so that he could move easily between "performance" and "reality" (or leave us guessing as to which was which), as well as pull into his scenario the visual art of the period.
His excuse was once again the Duke of Chandos - who did, indeed, amass a major collection (including a Poussin); thus the rehearsal/performance of Acis was sometimes interrupted by the pondering of a major canvas, apparently brought in by dealers. As it's no secret that seventeenth-century visual art, particularly Lorrain's evocations of the Roman campagna, inspired much of eighteenth-century operatic and theatrical convention (all those arcadian shepherds and nymphs from Ovid made their first appearances on canvas rather than onstage), these moments buzzed with a meta-theatrical resonance. From the twenty-first century we pondered the eighteenth, which was itself gazing back at the seventeenth, which in turn was transfixed by Ovid and the Romans. (An added shiver of resonance came from the knowledge that, like Arcadia, Cannons didn't last long; some thirty years after its completion, the collapse of the "South Sea Bubble" decimated the fortune of the Duke of Chandos, and the house was auctioned off, literally, brick by brick.)
It should be noted, however, that Blin fudged his postmodern framing a bit. The first painting displayed was not, surprisingly enough, Lorrain's well-known treatment of the myth in question, but rather his Landscape with Egeria Mourning for Numa (at left). The themes of the two myths are certainly similar (Acis is transformed into a fountain, while Egeria turns into a well); more to the point, Egeria is undeniably the more beautiful panorama, which perhaps explains Blin's choice - he wasn't looking for the specifics of this particular myth, but rather the long view of Arcadia itself.
Likewise the Poussin displayed was not the one owned by the Duke of Chandos (The Choice of Hercules), nor Poussin's own Acis and Galatea, but instead the famous Et in Arcadia Ego (right) - an appropriate riposte to Lorrain's dreamy idealism. The painting also matched neatly the somber turn the opera takes (needless to say, the love of Acis and Galatea can't last); indeed, for someone versed in art, the parallel was almost too obvious. Of course many classical musicians, outside their field of specialization, are as philistine as Patriots fans, and I have to report that the audience around me was audibly perplexed by both pictures. (And I wasn't in the mood to enlighten them.)
Which sums up, I think, a problem facing Blin, and the Early Music Festival in general - how to entice a subtly reactionary audience away from tableaux vivants and toward something theatrically rich and meaningful. I must admit, however, that even Acis was really a sketch of an idea rather than a fully developed one (all the more reason to return to the concept with more resources and perhaps another opera). Blin attempted to "consult the genius of the place" (as Pope once put it), by which I took him to mean the entire Baroque era; but he was only able to hint at questions of the age's idealized romantic atmosphere and hidden sexuality rather than fully develop them. (One touching gambit, in which a shepherd removed his wig and seemed to beg for sexual openness, gave some idea of how far the concept could go.) And alas, a few of the production's conceits felt slightly contrived, at least to anyone familiar with the period. Casting Alexander Pope as Polyphemus had its downside, for instance, as Pope is widely known to have been almost dwarfish, and hardly cut the figure of a towering rake (above right, Douglas Williams with Wakim), as here.
So Acis didn't so much serve as a destination as suggest a direction for BEMF. I must say though, that in musical terms, the Festival has certainly already arrived. The two instrumental "geniuses" of the place, Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, led the onstage early music orchestra with their customary intelligence and grace, but were sometimes eclipsed by the virtuosic Kathryn Montoya's sparkling work on flageolet recorder.
Vocally the performance was if anything even more impressive. Wakim proved to have a gorgeously pure bloom to the top of her voice - it slimmed out somewhat further down, but was always beguiling. Meanwhile Aaron Sheehan brought both a handsome vocal profile and formidable force to Acis, while Douglas Williams impressed with an agile bass and a memorably brooding intensity. In the smaller roles, local hero Jason McStoots (whom I've been praising for years) stole several comic scenes as a fussy Handel who couldn't help correcting the musicians onstage, but then revealed in his arias a warmly nuanced tone even richer than what I remembered. And as that wig-less shepherd, tenor Zachary Wilder may have contributed the most subtly poignant and openly emotional performance of the night. That's the whole cast, actually: five parts and five great performances. The Boston calendar has gotten crowded of late with wonderful opera productions - but with Acis and Galatea, we must add one more to the year's bounty.