Handel's "Acis and Galatea," a pastoral masque with a text by John Gay and Alexander Pope, may not be quite as easy to love as "La Traviata" or "Don Giovanni." But last night in the University of Maryland's Memorial Chapel, it was impossible not to be enchanted by this 267-year-old little confection. The performance, opening this year's Maryland Handel Festival, was a triumph of style and musicianship over material that seems singularly unpromising in the age of Rambo and "Miami Vice."
Problem No. 1: "Acis and Galatea" subscribes wholeheartedly to the pastoral tradition -- perhaps the silliest in the history of art -- with never a moment of irony to relieve the atmosphere of swains and nymphs (only one nymph, actually), purling streams, murmuring breezes and cooing doves. The plot can hardly be summarized with a straight face. It is about a love triangle between a sea nymph (Galatea), a shepherd (Acis) and a one-eyed giant (Polyphemus) who crushes Acis with a boulder in a jealous rage. Galatea uses her supernatural powers to turn Acis into a fountain and sings a soothing final thought: "Through the plains he joys to rove,/ Murm'ring still his gentle love."
The second problem is that of baroque vocal music, a genre that is welcomed when it has a religious text but otherwise has never found the kind of audience that welcomes Baroque music for violins or trumpets. Something artificial, something precious in this style becomes particularly apparent when the music is fitted to words.
Finally, there are the performance conventions of Baroque vocal music, including da capo repeats, elaborate ornamentation and obbligato instruments that insist on doing bird imitations when the text mentions birds or running water when the subject is a fountain. But last night's performance demonstrated that the precise restoration of a work's original style can also restore its original impact.
It was the work of the Smithsonian Chamber Players and an exquisitely chosen handful of vocal specialists: soprano Ann Monoyios, tenors Jeffrey Thomas and Patrick Romano, bass Christopher Deane and countertenor Peter Becker. They also doubled (sometimes a bit schizophrenically) as the chorus. Becker had no solos at all; it is surprising and gratifying to see a singer of his caliber engaged for a choral part. All the singing was superb. Deane may deserve special mention because basses are no longer expected to sing the kind of elaborate ornamentation he tossed off so lightly as Polyphemus. Also deserving special mention are the Smithsonian's outstanding wind players.
But this was an ensemble effort in which the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. Together, these 12 singers and instrumentalists produced one of the year's finest operatic performances in Washington -- or, I suspect, anywhere else.