It has taken 275 years for the serenata "Aci, Galatea e Polifemo" to make its way across the Atlantic from Naples, where George Frideric Handel composed it when he was 23 years old. It would not last on Broadway today; fashions in musical theater have changed too much. But in its Western Hemisphere premiere at the Terrace Theater last night it proved a fascinating work, imbued with a luxuriant imagination that expressed itself very largely in the instrumental writing.
It should not wait so long for its next performance; indeed, in an ideal world, last night would have been the beginning of an extended run in which the show could be polished, tightened and trimmed, some arias adapted to the available voices and perhaps a few splashy production numbers added.
What "Aci" lacks is the kind of emotional range and psychological depth that conductor Stephen Simon and his Handel Festival colleagues explored last month when they presented the composer's mature masterpiece "Hercules." What this little music drama offers in slightly under an hour and a half is a lot of virtuoso vocal writing that occasionally (and once or twice with heart-stopping effectiveness) strikes the true and deep emotional tone that is the hallmark of Handel at his best. There is also a sense of instrumental color hardly surpassed and seldom equaled in his later works. The members of the orchestra rose to their solo moments with a distinction that was not always equally evident in their ensemble performance.
All three vocalists performed honorably--on the whole, spectacularly--though none had an evening wholly free of problems. For mezzo-soprano Hilda Harris, it was chiefly a problem of warming up, and as the evening proceeded her voice blossomed into an instrument of glorious warmth, depth and subtle nuance. Soprano Linda Mabbs and bass Richard Crist could have benefited from a few transpositions that would have taken one passage or another out of regions not congenial to their excellent voices--but otherwise both sang superbly. Mabbs made the strongest vocal impression of the evening in her exquisite death aria, "Verso gia l'alma."
The program opened with the well-crafted Overture to "Il Pastor Fido" and a dazzling performance of the Harp Concerto in B-flat, with a beautifully styled virtuoso solo performance by Sara Cutler and an unusually light and crisp interpretation by Simon.