Opera Atelier’s ACIS & GALATEA reviewed by Stanley Fefferman

Saturday, October 30, Elgin Theatre, Toronto.

The agreement of Handel’s music and the English libretto by John Gay, one of foremost poets of the Augustan age, is one of the joys of Acis and Galatea. Words and music from early 1700’s are all about how measure and balance inform emotional expression. The joy here is in the calm state of equanimity the audience comes to enjoy: “By Music, minds an equal temper know,/Nor swell too high, nor sink too low.”

This concern with form illuminates Marshall Pynkoski’s direction to his players, and the choreography of his co-director Jeanette Lajeunesse Zinng. The series of attitudes that, for instance, the shepherd Acis (Thomas Macleay) strikes while declaring his love and longing—one hand to the heart the other to the horizon— form a vocabulary and syntax that recall the poses of the classical stage depicted in visual art. The postures and dance steps we enjoy are based on the forms of the Baroque suite: Minuet, Sarabande, Bourrée, etc.

The music performed by Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of David Fallis is as if issuing from a single voice. Music, dance, singing and acting, each finely tuned, all coordinated, create a stylistic impression that is the signature of Opera Atelier. This style is as unmistakable, in its way, as Elvis or the Beatles.

Gerard Gauci designed the whole production, set and costumes, for the three principals in a single location, each wearing a single costume. The production as a whole and the individual scenes remain clearly in the mind at this time of writing. What more need I say about that.

There is a downside to balance and equanimity: it can be a little boring, especially when the musical form of aria a capo gives room for what sometimes seem like endless repetitions of the words. Also, the fact that there are only two actions in this drama—the death and the transfiguration of Acis—both coming at the end of the second act, prolong the the initial sense of uniformity to an uncomfortable degree. But the entrance of the villainous monster, the one-eyed man-eating Polyphemus, in the second act, gets the juices flowing.

João Fernandez’s earthy basso and clownish manners enters like the proverbial bull who gets the china-shop rocking. When he comes on to Galatea, Mireille Asselin turned off the charm of her bright, thrilling soprano, and put him down with the tones of a high-school queen. Then the puckish Damon (a brilliant Atelier production composite of two characters), attractively played by Lawrence Wiliford, puts the three principles to sleep and provokes each one to act out their true feelings until the inevitable happens: Polyphemus kills Acis, and Galatea grieves until Damon reminds her that she has divine powers, and she transforms her dead human lover into an immortal river-god.

The death of Acis, Galatea’s grief, and the consolation of his transformation, are profoundly moving. Also moving and memorable are Damon’s warning to Acis that the joys of love are momentary, but to measure the pains of love “life is too little.”

Opera Atelier’s Acis and Galatea plays until November 7, 2010.

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