Musica Angelica’s late winter offering was a pastoral-style tableau of George Fredrick Handel’s Acis and Galatea. This is Handel’s only opera in English, and has been called one of his finest works. However, it is not often performed, and the three performances scheduled for Feb 20-23 are a special Baroque treat for Southern California listeners.
The opera was performed in concert style, with five singers in roles of both soloists and chorus, all led by Martin Haselböck, who, conducting from the harpsichord, maintained a strong hold over every musical element.
The orchestra carried the opening sinfonia with textured clarity, at a briskly paced tempo. The oboe suspensions sang and were spun out as harbingers of coming excitement. With the entrance of the first chorus, “The pleasure of the plains”, the choral ensemble made a strong showing and gave insight into who and how the soloists’ vocal personalities would convey the story.
The first aria, “Hush ye pretty warbling choir” featured the impossibly tiny sopranino recorder, played by Kathryn Montoyo, who became a fully fleshed-out instrumental character, interacting with great, engaging spirit with soprano Teresa Wakim, who played Galetea. More duet than true solo, their interweaving voicing was excellently defined and a testament to the integral quality of true music-making: listening!
The singers managed the balanced dance between chorus and soloists well. Steven Caldicott Wilson, as Acis, blended beautifully with Wakim in their first duet, “Happy We”. Tenor Nils Neubert, as Damon, the sensible friend, spun the sixteenth notes of his long melismatic runs with grace and ease. There was a consistent lightness in his voice that simultaneously achieved articulation, speed and beautiful line. In the second act, the quick tempo challenged language clarity for the first chorus, but multiple individual statements concurrently expressed can vex the best listener, whether sung or spoken. Despite individual sentiments conveyed by the characters, the sound was gorgeous and the tight ensemble sang beautifully.
Baritone Christopher Herbert as the giant Polypheme was a spirited presence and a pleasure to watch, whether as chorister or soloist. His face expressed a broad range of emotion coupled with energetic vocal melismas.
Although mezzo-soprano Tracy Cowart had fewer opportunities to shine as Corydon, she modeled da capo ornamentation and gave us good reason to pay attention in the re-statement. She was the only singer who took full advantage of the opportunity, and it livened up the otherwise predictable repetition of the first section of her aria. It felt a loss not to have had a chance to hear what she would do with a second selection.
With his second aria, Wilson’s voice opened up to a wider dynamic expression and vocal range than we had heard in him earlier. The discipline and careful listening displayed in the a cappella ensemble section was well-crafted, tight and well executed.
Overall, it was a pleasure to have such a beautiful continuo section to hold all of these elements together.