The list of Handel’s operas, or music dramas, runs to 42. Many are great works. “Aci, Galatea and Polifemo” is not among them. It is a “serenata” written in Naples to help celebrate a royal wedding in 1708. Handel was in his early 20s.
Given how few of Handel’s major operas are regularly staged, there would seem little reason to mount “Aci,” which is based on Ovid and concerns a cyclopes ogre that messes up the love affair of a nymph and shepherd. Little reason, other than historical curiosity. After all, “Agrippina,” Handel’s first repertory opera, which will reach the Metropolitan Opera on Feb. 6, didn’t come out of nowhere.
You can say that again.
Over the last 35 years, Nicholas McGegan has made the Bay Area’s Philharmonia Baroque into America’s premier early music ensemble in part through his attention to Handel’s dramatic works. Now in his outgoing season, he has outdone himself with a stupendously sung and profoundly disquieting “Aci” in a 170-seat experimental space, ODC Theater, here in the Mission District.
Everyone updates Handel, and that’s not particularly difficult given how the profound emotional resonance of his arias beg relevance. In this “Aci,” what’s new is the approach to sexuality.
Galatea, daughter of the sea god Nereus, loves Acis. The lovelorn one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who lusts after and attempts to rape Galatea, kills Acis with a rock. His flowing blood is divinely turned into a river in which Galatea can bathe, ever embraced by her beloved.
In a seemingly strange turn, Handel wrote the part of Acis for a soprano voice and Galatea for a lower mezzo or alto. No doubt this was because the male singer was a castrato, while Galatea was sung by a woman (although she too in some performances may have also been a castrato). Strange too that the most compelling role is Polyphemus, written for a bass with a huge range of 2 1/2 octaves.
For this production, which director Christopher Alden created two years ago at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, N.Y., everything is turned around. A brilliant soprano, Lauren Snouffer, who specializes in Baroque music and contemporary opera, becomes a female Acis. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, best known for having starred in Philip Glass’ “Akhnaten” at Los Angeles Opera and recently at the Met, is now a male Galatea. Extraordinary bass-baritone Davóne Tines, also best known for bringing intense immediacy to new music, is the gripping Polyphemus.
Handel and sexuality is a hot topic. There is speculation that this not-so-innocent serenata was written around the time that the composer had broken up an affair with a soprano to begin one with a prince. Much has been made of homoerotic hints in Nicola Giuvo’s beautiful libretto. With much left to interpretation, however, musicologists inevitably squabble.
Alden’s answer is to look at all possibilities, to be as sexually fluid as feasible and to work with a cast and conductor who can make anything believable. The outcome is to show a composer going into the most shocking depths of his soul, his deepest passions, attractions and fears.
The production further shows the first real stirrings of the greatest dramatist of his era, a young composer wildly experimenting not only with his inner feelings but also with musical means to express them. Handel knew full well he had gone far beyond the constraints of a happy wedding piece, and he reused several of the arias in later operas, where even there they felt revealingly innovative.
The set (by Paul Tate dePoo III) is a tub in Polyphemus’ luxurious bathroom, with a lovely tile wall as video by Mark Grey (better known as a sound designer and composer) projected on a screen. The tiles, like the characters, will decompose.
Acis and Galatea are housekeepers dressed in identical drab uniforms (by Terese Wadden). They morosely mop the floor. There is very little in the libretto to suggest their sex, and it is very easy to accept them as we see them, especially once they remove their hairnets.
The imposing Polyphemus enters to take a bath, and the confusion starts. Tines is scarily abusive. But he is also on some level attractive to both lovers. Instead of a Galatea who stands firm in her rejection of Polyphemus, Costanzo, in by far the most theatrically compelling performance I have seen him give, appears conflicted, as if Polyphemus were releasing something in him he couldn’t understand. Throwing the lovers off even more, Polyphemus makes threateningly lecherous gestures toward Acis, at one point almost cutting off her clothes.
Everyone takes cathartic, erotic and suicidal turns in the tub. A razor changes hands. But the gravest doubts are found in Polyphemus, a tragic combination of Hannibal Lecter, Caliban, a modern #MeToo aggressor and Sweeney Todd. He is undone by a lethal cocktail of self-loathing and impetuosity revealed in arias of such intense feeling that his self-awareness is amplified into unbearable suffering.
Tines’ terrifying torment is so much in one’s face and one’s ears that you almost have to close your eyes now and then. But you can’t control your ears any more than Polyphemus can control his torment. With almost daily performances, Tines on Sunday had an uncharacteristic, if not dramatically inappropriate, raspiness to his voice at times. (This was the fourth performance of the run, which ends Saturday.) Still, he was overwhelming.
Much of the strength in the so-called serenata comes from natural imagery, the arias using the savagery of the animal world and an environment that operates by its own laws as direct or ironic metaphors for feelings. Handel inventively tunes into this in myriad ways, using the orchestra to create sound effects as well as to provoke emotions. Acis and Galatea express themselves through spectacular singing, at which Snouffer and Costanzo prove breathtaking.
No more an amusement, this “Aci” now represents for us the horror of insecurity, the horror, even, of irony. Alden’s original inspiration, he says in the program notes, was the famous gold-laced bathroom in a certain Manhattan tower and its indelicately boastful occupant. In the end, the production goes far past such specificity, while at the same time making Handel exactly of the moment.
Is it a coincidence that French conductor Emmanuelle Haïm, whose illuminating recording of the score had a lot to do with reviving interest in “Aci,” did something similar with another #MeToo with-it Handel dramatic cantata at the Los Angeles Philharmonic?
Is it a coincidence that Costanzo and Tines are close collaborators with, and a longtime inspiration to, Matthew Aucoin, who wrote an Orpheus soliloquy for Costanzo six years ago and whose “Eurydice” will have its world premiere at L.A. Opera on Saturday night?
Is it a coincidence that Long Beach Opera, where Alden’s career got much of its early lift in the 1980s, has just taken a Trumpian approach (albiet a far sillier one) to Purcell’s “King Arthur,” written just 17 years before “Aci”?
Or is it simply that art and myth matter as much, if not more, than they always have? Yes, “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo” matters.