Angela Mortellaro and Daniel Shirley play an amorous nymph and World War I soldier in Madison Opera's Acis and Galatea.
The Madison Opera production of George Frideric Handel's Acis and Galatea had a combination of grit and charm last night at Overture Center's Playhouse. I never thought I would use the word "grit" when describing a Handel work, but when stage director David Lefkowich moved the action to World War I, the feeling of the opera shifted from dreamy to a little edgy.
Written in 1717, when musical genres were in flux, Acis and Galatea has been called many things -- a masque, a pastoral opera, a serenata and a cantata -- and it's probably been performed in all of these ways. But it's basically light, festive entertainment, no matter what genre you put it in.
The action in the original John Gay libretto, which is based on Ovid's Metamorphoses, doesn't happen in any particular place, but we get the idea that it's a warm, dreamy space where Galatea, a water nymph, falls for Acis, a shepherd, only to have their love savagely intruded upon by the cyclops Polyphemus. A fellow shepherd, Damon, can't prevent Acis's death, but all is not lost. Galatea brings her lover back as an immortal fountain.
Moving the action to a forest scene at the end of World War I gave the work an edge that took me aback initially, but Lefkowich handled this deftly so it wasn't too difficult to get into his world. Instead of Acis being a shepherd, he was a soldier coming home from war. Polyphemus was still a big cyclops, but wears military gear that made him look like a cross between Rambo and Frankenstein (a little comic relief here).
Conductor John DeMain and 13 Madison Symphony Orchestra musicians opened the show with a cheerful sinfonia and emphasized Handel's trademark of disciplined vitality throughout the work. It was a Baroque band at its finest with some lovely solos.
To sing anything by Handel takes an agile voice, and the four young soloists did a good job. Soprano Angela Mortellaro (Galatea) and tenor Daniel Shirley (Acis) used the trill, a kind of warbling in the voice, to good effect. Mortellaro's soprano was darker than I expected, but still lovely. J. Adam Shelton (Damon) had a crystalline tenor with good diction.
The show stealers were Shirley and bass Jeffrey Beruan (Polyphemus), Shirley for his command of the stage as a whole and Beruan for giving depth to his character.
Members of Kanopy Dance Company acted as Galatea's entourage, and their graceful moves, performed as if underwater, reminded us that part of this story is about the rejuvenating powers of seas and rivers. And finally, those who made up the ensemble of singers were superb both for their blend of voices and emotive power.
It took the audience a while to get used to the unfamiliar rhythms and nuances of the company's first-ever Baroque production, but once they did, it seems that they had a jolly good time.
The final performance of Acis and Galatea is today at 2:30 p.m.