Johann Naumann (1741-1801), almost forgotten today, was a German who studied in Italy (with Padre Martini, who taught Mozart) and then wrote operas for Dresden, Stockholm (his Gustaf Wasa is considered to be the “Swedish National Opera”), and Copenhagen, ultimately returning to Dresden where he served as Oberkapellmeister. He was very important and prolfic; Aci e Galatea is his last work. It has elements of opera buffa, with Polifemo (the head Cyclops) and Orgonte (his “assistant”) as sometimes laughable villains–but, when Polifemo kills Aci, something else. Aci is returned to life by Neptune in this version of the tale, and all ends happily. A secondary in-love duo, Dorinda and Lisia, have some pretty music, and Orgonte’s love for Dorinda allows for another complication.
The brief-ish work–less than two hours–has many fine little arias, a couple of major ones, good chorus work, and a remarkable terzetto. It’s not entirely a “number” opera, since occasionally chorus will lead to arioso which leads to aria and straight into another chorus. The orchestration is sophisticated (clarinets, horns, bassoons, and a full complement of strings). There is some secco recitative, but not enough to bore. It’s not a riveting work, but it’s engaging and genuinely well-crafted.
The stars of the show are conductor Frieder Bernius and his Barockorchester Stuttgart. They attack the music as if they genuinely believe in the magic, sylvan-but-treacherous world the characters inhabit, and when tenderness is called for, in the sweet love-interest moments, their playing is suitably lovely. The winds play their difficult music gloriously. The singing is a mixed bag. Best is Brigitte Geller’s Galatea; her voice is bright and she inflects it well, her coloratura is assured, and in her big lament after Aci’s death she is genuinely moving. Alas, Aci is not worth lamenting over in the person of tenor Martin Homrich, who lacks the style and technique for this Haydn-esque Classicism: his stabs at coloratura in his first-act aria are among the most embarrassingly sloppy I’ve ever heard. The two villainous Cyclopses, Polifemo and Orgonte, Klaus Häger and Ulf Bästlein respectively, are good but ideally should possess darker voices and bigger personalities. As the secondary couple, Christiane Libor (Dorinda) and Marcus Ullmann (Lisia) are fine. Neptune comes along briefly at the end, and here he is well sung by the terrifically-named Wilhelm Schwinghammer. The chorus (made up of nymphs, shepherds, and cyclopses) is excellent in its relatively large role. This may not be a crucial addition to a collection, but it’s a fine work from a fine, almost unknown composer, and there’s much to admire in this recording.