Ovid's tale of Acis and Galatea is familiar to opera lovers in the sturdy, tuneful and mostly lighthearted version created by George Frideric Handel. But another great musician was also inspired by this story -- the French composer Jean Baptiste Lully, who was working on his own operatic setting at just about the time of Handel's birth.
The result was a grave, stately and beautiful work titled "Acis et Galatee" (1686), which received a rare performance Sunday afternoon at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at Maryland. It was yet another in a distinguished series of concert versions of baroque and classical-era music theater by the team of Opera Lafayette and the New York Baroque Dance Company, led by Ryan Brown and Catherine Turocy, respectively. Their past collaborations have included Gluck's "Orphee et Euridice" and Rameau's "Hippolyte et Aricie," both memorable; for the most part, this "Acis" was a worthy successor.
Ryan Brown conducted the Lully opera with affection and affinity.
Lully (1632-1687) was France's first great opera composer. It should never be forgotten how long ago he was writing -- Claudio Monteverdi, whose "Orfeo" is the earliest opera in the standard repertory, was still active when Lully began his musical studies. While there is nothing primitive about "Acis et Galatee" -- the score abounds in lush, florid invention, with some startling harmonies -- Lully was pursuing markedly different goals from Handel, Gluck or even Rameau. Instead of full-fledged arias, he gives us long passages of musical declamation, and in the dramatic action he is satisfied to present a world, from a certain formal distance, rather than attempt to transport the spectator to that world.
In order to accommodate the dance elements (which seemed elegant, expressive and sometimes very funny to this admittedly untrained eye) the singers were placed at the back of the stage, behind the orchestra. This posed something of a challenge. Opera Lafayette emphasizes natural, unforced, almost conversational singing -- straining is a cardinal sin in this music, and there was none of it on Sunday. But some of the vocalists simply couldn't be heard very well from that distance when the orchestra was playing at full tilt, and the acoustics in the Smith Center's Dekelboum Concert Hall do not carry as well as they might.
Still, this was only an occasional problem, and I can't think of any way around it without sacrificing the dances. Brown assembled a crack cast: Howard Crook (who has recorded the opera for the Archiv label) sang the tenor role of Acis with dapper grace, despite just a hint of edginess on the highest notes. Soprano Gaele Le Roi was a wonderful Galatee -- intensely emotive yet unfailingly sweet-toned, whether pert and pouty or exploring the realms of high tragedy. Bass Bernard Deletre had the largest voice on the stage (as befits the gigantic ogre Polipheme); his singing was toffee-smooth and full of character.
Smaller roles were also cast from strength and deserve acknowledgment, whether Francois Loup's refined Neptune, Robert Petillo's Tircis or Jennifer Ellis's Aminte. Tony Boutte sang three different roles over the course of the afternoon, infusing each of them with life and lyricism. Barbara Hollinshead sang the role of Diane and Miriam Dubrow was both Scylla and a dryad. But Hollinshead and Dubrow made their strongest impressions in the gorgeous final chorus, where both were cast as aquatic creatures known as naiads, and both sang out with wise, haunting, full-throated purity.
Brown assembled a good, small, eager orchestra; I particularly liked the sense of playful freedom that concertmaster Claire Jolivet brought to her violin solos, which had (no slight intended) just a hint of the barn dance to them. Brown conducted with affection and affinity, taking clear pleasure in bringing this luscious music to life. Especially after the smashing piano recital played by Marilyn Nonken at the Smith Center the night before, this was a good weekend to have spent in College Park.