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Opera Atelier lets the sweetness of Handel's melodies shine through

Acis and Galatea

  • by George Frideric Handel
  • Opera Atelier with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir
  • At the Elgin Theatre
  • In Toronto on Saturday night

It was a happy inspiration to celebrate the opening of Opera Atelier's silver-anniversary season with George Frideric Handel's sylvan masque, or pastoral, Acis and Galatea, one of the shortest, sweetest stageable works in the Handel canon.

Handel first composed Acis and Galatea in 1718 when he was a young genius in the employ of the Duke of Chandos. He was at the stage of his burgeoning career when melodies virtually flowed in the ink of his pen. The piece was an instant success, so much so that Handel went on recomposing and revising it for specific performances for years and years. But he never went so far as to impair the youthful rapture of inspiration so evident in the music from its first performances. It still leads its listener effortlessly from one gorgeous aria, duet or chorus to another.

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Artistic director Marshall Pynkoski was thus astute in choosing it for his new Opera Atelier production; astute, too, in the casting of its solo roles (arguably with one exception); and also in staging it with a new restraint, trusting the spell of its music instead of warping it out of shape with control-freakish over-choreography, which he has done occasionally with past productions.

The four singers were for the most part exemplary, headed by the consummately brilliant and nimble tenor Lawrence Wiliford as the Ariel-like Damon, Olympian and witty guiding mountain spirit of the simple drama.

Soprano Mireille Asselin made an exquisitely lovely Galatea, the immortal sea-nymph - hampered only by her costume, a kind of bouffant party gown more suitable to a 1950s prom. At first, her singing seemed too fragile and undefined, but as she gained a sense of the Elgin's acoustics, both her singing and her dramatic grip on the role deepened and took on real shape and fire.

Tenor Thomas Macleay was a modest and touching Acis, the shepherd boy who loses his heart to Galatea. His singing, sweetly musical from the outset, also gained in strength and dramatic conviction as the performance proceeded.

The Portuguese bass-baritone Joao Fernandes was the only cast member unsuited to his role - that of Polyphemus, the cyclopean monster who lusts after Galatea and subsequently, in a jealous rage, murders Acis by crushing him under a huge boulder.

Fernandes is a fine singer and artist whose moving and dignified portrayal of Seneca in Opera Atelier's production of The Coronation of Poppea one remembers with admiration. But he is too slight, too handsome to suggest the gross and massive heft of the baleful monster, and his voice cannot deliver the darkly menacing sonority of Polyphemus's low notes. Admittedly it is difficult to think of the monster's signal aria, O ruddier than the cherry, O sweeter than the berry as anything more sinister than a catchy tune for the Jolly Green Giant. But it must be managed, and to conceive Polyphemus simply as a slapstick joke does not serve the dramatic purpose even of that perky and problematic aria.

Apart from Galatea's and Polyphemus's unsuitable garb, the costumes and set designs of Gerard Gauci were well-imagined and suitable. The silent waterfall that served as the environment of Acis's magical restoration to life was especially effective.

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One does sometimes wish the males in an Opera Atelier production could find something a bit more in the way of trousers. Still, director Pynkoski has been triumphantly putting bums in seats - and in tights - for 25 years. It's a bit late to cry prudish. If it works, why fix it?

But I still contend that what works best of all in an Opera Atelier production is the shining collaboration of the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. Saturday, under the light and zestful hand of conductor David Fallis, they were absolutely stunning, alert Handelians to the core.

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