"Oh, the pleasure of the plains. Happy nymphs and happy swains . . . Harmless, merry, free and gay, dancing and sport the hours away," proclaims the chorus at the beginning of George Frederick Handel's "Acis and Galatea."
Ideally summery, Handel's 1718 "masque" implies an endless pastoral commitment to pleasure, and it was performed very much in this spirit - if also slightly limp - last night at Tawes Theatre at the University of Maryland by the New York Chamber Soloists.
Unfortunately, this midsummer's "Acis" was a minor disppointment due to the vocalists. Soloists included the tenor Charles Bressler as the doomed Acis, soprano Jean Hakes as Galatea, bass Raymond Murcell as the delightful Giant Polyphemus and tenor Frank Hoffmeister as the shepherd Damon. However, one could not ask for more from the small chamber orchestra. Its playing was utterly sophisticated and beautiful.
"Acis and Galatea" though not often offered today, was performed more than any of his other works during Handel's own lifetime.
Wisely, the New York Chamber Soloists chose perhaps the most beautiful version to offer its audience, basically Handelhs original English account, written for a private performance at the country home of the Duke of Chandos.
The story is a fairly simple one full a charm and wit. A monster, Polyphemus, a sort of semi-comic giant, kills Acis, his rival in love at the end of a superbly dramatic trio. Galatea, not despairing, turns her dead loverhs corpse into a fountain with her divine powers.
Since the work was performed as a "masque" at cannons - that is, with acting, scenery and the like - its university performance was more in the spirit of what Handel called a "serenata," or what today we would call a concert version.
Perhaps the heat inside the Tawes Theatre had something to do with the general lack of humor in Tuesday's performance. Despite the best efforts of the instrumentalists to infect it with lilt and panache, it generally lagged in good spirits. Particularly wanting in this respect was Frank Murcell's playing of Polyphemus, which was slightly deadpan and certainly not bristling with the energy that the part has in abundance. His famous number, "oh, Ruddier than the Cherry," was barely genial, while Murcell had trouble at times being heard and understood. Jean Hakes' Galatea was also found to be wanting in certain respects.