Opera Lafayette charms intimately with ‘Acis and Galatea’ at Kennedy Center

April 7, 2011

Handel premiered “Acis and Galatea” at Cannons, the palatial home of the future Duke of Chandos, one of the composer’s most important patrons. Tuesday night, an intimately scaled performance of the work recalled the private circumstances of its premiere nearly 300 years earlier.

In the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, the ensemble of period instruments concluded Opera Lafayette’s season by returning to this charming pastoral work, which it first performed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 2000.

John Gay’s bubbly, balladic libretto, drawn from a short passage in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” (by way of Dryden’s English translation), has many pleasing comic touches that adorn its central tragedy.

Bass-baritone Peter Becker stole the show as Polyphemus, the jealous Cyclops who crushes his rival Acis with a large stone, trembling with rage and plenty of bluster in his low notes.

Tenor Thomas Michael Allen made a pleasing company debut as Acis, singing with great agility in the fast passages and true intonation. The tone was a little constrained at the top and not as generally pretty as one might have liked.

Rosa Lamoreaux had an elegant turn as the sea-nymph Galatea, but the top of her voice did not have the ideal shimmer for the role. She could not compete with the memory of the versatile Rebecca Duren, who once performed the most difficult arias while suspended upside-down on ropes in the crazy circus-themed production of the work presented a few years ago by the now-defunct American Opera Theater that was in Baltimore.

Tenor Robert Getchell had a light but clear ping in the second tenor role of Damon. The soloists sang the choral parts, joined by countertenor Roger O. Isaacs, making for a luxuriant, beautifully balanced sound.

There were just enough musicians in the pit to cover the parts, including conductor Ryan Brown, who joined in on the violin part at times. That made for a clean balance with the singers on the stage, although the contrast of solo and tutti in Damon’s aria “Consider, fond shepherd” was underserved. The playing was incisive, with fleet tempos in the fast movements and arching lines in the slow ones.

A standout performance came from Owen Watkins on the sopranino recorder, with thrilling, crystal-clear renditions of the virtuosic solo parts for flauto piccolo, as a bird in dialogue with Galatea and as the cluster of reeds played by the “capacious mouth” of Polyphemus.

The duet of murmuring alto recorders, as Acis’s streaming blood transforms into the river that still flows by Acireale in Sicily, was equally lovely.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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