Handel’s Acis and Galatea: The High School Version

Review by: David Hurwitz

HandelAcis

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 9

The fad for authenticity has combined with economic reality to produce a trend toward employing the smallest possible version of any work. This is not necessarily an advantage with Handel, who jumped at every opportunity to make his music, if not necessarily bigger, then more varied and colorful. Acis and Galatea is a case in point. He set the same story twice, first as an Italian serenata for three singers with a fairly substantial instrumental ensemble, and then in English for five singers (also making up the choir) and a small orchestra of four strings, two oboes doubling recorders, bassoon, and continuo.

The two works share almost no music, so when Handel needed to put a rival English production out of business he simply slammed both of them together, brought in some star singers, divided the piece into two parts, added a chorus to “Happy we” to round off the first part (using the carillon for added color), and performed it in two languages. I suppose Polyphemus’ big aria thus became “Fra l’ombre than the Cherry”, or some such. The result was nonsense, and eventually he reverted to the English version (with extra chorus, in two parts) for performances in Dublin. These omitted the carillon for the simple reason that Handel owned the only one in the world and it didn’t fit into his carry-on luggage. This version of “Happy we” has never been recorded, which is inexcusable.

You won’t find it here. This teeny, tiny performance goes back to Handel’s 1718 original, with a handful of extra voices in the choruses that remain. It’s a good performance, but doing it on the cheap, even if “authentic”, doesn’t always serve the music best. Here’s the problem: with only two violins the tunes sometimes get lost in the continuo, especially in quicker pieces such as the long run of numbers from “Happy we” through “Wretched Lovers!” and “O Ruddier than the Cherry”. Curiously, fewer doesn’t also mean softer, either. There’s a definite limit to how quiet the music can be while the continuo, with its limited dynamic range, is playing. This means the difference between loud and soft isn’t all that great, and the result has a certain monochrome quality that fights the dramatic character of Handel’s music at both extremes of volume.

As for the singing, the small voices suit the small forces. Teresa Wakim has that pure, winsome timbre you want in your average nymph; her rejection of Polyphemus is convincing, her sorrow on the death of Acis genuine. Aaron Sheehan as Acis sounds pleasant enough in the happy music at the start, and his agility commands respect, but when Polyphemus crushes him to death beneath a boulder he doesn’t give the impression that he’s all that upset. Douglas Williams blusters well as the cyclops Polyphemus, and “O Ruddier than the Cherry” manages to sound funny and menacing at the same time. Although he lacks a rich bottom, his angry cries of “Die!” in “The Flocks shall leave the Mountains” have real force.

In the smaller roles, Zachary Wilder’s singing of “Would you gain the tender Creature” makes a major highlight of the shepherd Coridon. Jason McStoots’ Damon, on the other hand, has been spending too much time with his sheep. He doesn’t exactly bleat, but his voice lacks firmness and it’s really not beautiful. There is a bonus, though, in the form of the early cantata Sarei troppo felice (“I would have been happy”), extremely affectingly sung by Amanda Forsythe.

This, then, is a pleasing performance, very well recorded, but one that doesn’t quite realize the richness of Handel’s inspiration the way versions with larger forces (Gardiner, Christie, King) do. Forced to choose, I’d stick with Christie (Warner) or King (Hyperion), but if you are sympathetic to the concept, and that’s just a question of personal taste, you’ll probably enjoy this.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Christie (Warner/Erato)

  • Teresa Wakim and Amanda Forsythe (sopranos); Aaron Sheehan (tenor); Douglas Williams (bass-baritone); others
  • Boston Early Music Festival Vocal and Chamber Ensembles; Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs

  • CPO - 777 877-2
  • CD

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