Handel’s Aci Galatea e Polifemo by Le concert d’Astrée
Lincoln Center, Alice Tully Hall: October 26, 2013
Handel – Overture: Concerto Grosso in F minor, opus 3 no. 4 HWV 315
Handel – Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, HWV 72, libretto by Nicola Giuvo
After the Boston Early Music Festival’s magnificent production of Handel’s first opera Almira, certainly a youthful work, from before he left for Italy, but such a great one, it is fascinating to hear another of his early dramatic works from a little later. He wrote Aci, Galatea e Polifemo as a cantata or serenata for a neapolitan royal wedding in 1708 (a year after his first cantata Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno and in the same year as his first oratorio La Resurrezione), and it feels to me very far to the opera end of the spectrum. It isn’t to be mistaken with the later English opera he wrote on the same myth. He wrote the serenata for, rather focussed it on, only three characters, soprano, alto and bass, with a fiery intensity and brisk pacing similar to Almira‘s, but of course paired down to an extremely tight little tragedy. This speed and intensity here never muddies any part, any aria, the musical ideas are continuously very strong, and the feelings in each aria are honest and immediate. Even when cut off, each character’s thread never goes slack, nor that of the very articulate instrumental element. Listening and being absorbed into it, it feels like an opera, coming out of it one feels one has experienced a full opera and it sits so in one’s mind, perhaps because of its intensity, its expanse of colors, or the dense musical material where Handel’s fireworks only layer the music more densely; the music seems to absorb a kaleidoscope of ornamentation without seeming at all over-encrusted, in fact it is a very lithe and flexible little piece in performance. It could even probably take a sensible nimble staging that leaves much to the imagination, but it really doesn’t seem to need anything more. The costuming and movements of the singers in this production are neither too much or too little.
Of course it helps having a tightly woven group like Le concert d’Astrée performing it. One can imagine a mediocre performance of this piece being unlistenable, at least now having been spoiled by this performance. The group, resident ensemble for some 10 years at the Opéra de Lille but with also a heavy touring and recording schedule, recorded this serenata 10 years ago and are touring with it again briefly this season, finishing up in New York after playing in France and Austria the previous week. They are a fairly large Baroque orchestra, filling out Alice Tully Hall’s quite cavernous theatre well; the sound isn’t exactly quiet, though they use their full dynamic range subtly. The hall did sound a little cavernous though, the acoustic playing some strange tricks, like the bass of Emmanuelle Haïm’s harpsichord sounding as if it came from the ceiling at times. But these were minor gripes and easily enough ignorable. With natural trumpets, oboes, recorders, a second harpsichord mounted on a small portable organ, a huge range of coloring is possible.
The brisk pulse of this performance fit very well the very certain counterpoint (for such a young composer), and the fast unspooling of the story — really more a long unbroken here two-, here three-way conversation, with only one big piece of action — that’s to say the murder of Aci and the complete metamorphosis into nature — the river Acis — flowing naturally from the music at the end. The virtuosic musicians added to the color, with especially fine oboist, recorder duo (who come up front and center for their duet, displacing the singers momentarily), first violin and theorboist, the last here contributing vitally to the performance in the varied and characterful continuo accompaniment. Emmanuelle Haïm as well as being an evidently adventurous artistic director and a very fine Baroque conductor, is a very interesting harpsichordist, standing out with the singers now and again, in a way I wish more often. Though of course there is only so much room for harpsichord virtuosity. With the three singers — all soloists, all equal but different — there is more musicianship and character than many mono-starred full operas. They likewise sit inside and somewhat out of this orchestra, which under Emmanuelle Haïm’s very detailed and seemingly effortlessly wrought phrasing gives the sense of infinite organic flexibility, a control used to bring across something extremely satisfying. Laurent Naouri’s bass has rich and clear textures and quick and nimble melismas, and he clearly takes much more interest in Polifemo than to sing straight unambiguous villainy — though the character drops some bludgeoning maldestro lines — like the final “impara, ingrata, impara” which drips with a misogyny certainly not entirely disappeared from the modern human race. His Polifemo is a dark character, more a Don Giovanni, albeit an underachieving one. The character is a simpleton, but very direct; he is of course only half-blind to the world of people around him, and there is some humor too, even if very brief, not to interrupt the flow of the piece. Naouri isn’t afraid to give the character some feelings as well as impulses in the arias. Lydia Teuscher in the trouser-castrato role, displayed a heroic soprano — including all the nakedly felt tragedy of Aci’s love affair and fearless outward expression of these feelings to his love alongside his upstanding defiance of the cyclops’s bullying. Delphine Galou, an alto with a huge impressive range, has a voice of myriad colors in all registers, but does seem to relish all the low singing here Handel gives her nereid. She uses these colors tastefully, with care and thought, sitting in interesting contrast between the other two characters and the orchestra — the serenata is a small tour de force of Baroque musical and theatrical contrast and chiaroscuro. Her Galatea seems like a real near-human. Often singing at the lower end of the register at the beginning, though her voice didn’t fully bloom until later in the first half of the concert, she seemed slightly other, but never grotesque — those qualities, what there are of them, are reserved for Polifemo — but she draws out a real person and makes a convincing pair with this Aci. This Galatea is changeable and amorphous compared to the set characters of Aci and Polifemo, her arias develop until the end when all the subtle colors are there, many carefully chosen shades of blue and green-blue of the sea, and there is never a sense of artifice or musical forcing even in the vocal “fireworks.” Nor did the little major-keyed epilogue, reminiscent of Mozart’s for Don Giovanni seem tacked on. And so we hear with all clarity the strong but fine and ornate music Handel created as a young artist, with all the youthful vivacity and vigor to boot, and in an early music group which, like the best aspects of the Boston Early Music Festival, has an easy cohabitation of geeky earnestness and artistic seriousness and a sense of lightness and humor.