Seattle's Handel Festival: a rousing climax

The closing weekend presented two quite different and quite early Handel works for the musical theater, providing rich insights into the Handel of 1718 and many lovely musical moments.

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Handel: master melodist, master of many forms.

The closing weekend presented two quite different and quite early Handel works for the musical theater, providing rich insights into the Handel of 1718 and many lovely musical moments.

Only two years after launching, Pacific MusicWorks continues to expand an already-ambitious scope. The company — founded by Seattle-based Stephen Stubbs — has become known for productions and collaborations that bring an innovative flair to the cause of early music.

But PMW nudged its risk-taking stance up a few more notches over the past weekend with a pair of back-to-back events offered as part of this year’s American Handel Festival. On Friday, at Town Hall, it presented the Boston Early Music Festival’s stylish production of "Acis and Galatea." The following night came PMW’s own production of the oratorio "Esther," performed at St. James Cathedral.

This pairing of Handel’s first two dramatic works set to English texts gave a fascinatingly detailed snapshot of the young composer at a crucial turning point in his career. Though written in the same year (1718), both display utterly distinctive musical personalities. Each of the weekend’s productions also shed light on how 21st-century scholarship and sensibilities alike are reshaping our reception of his music. The result overall made for a splendid climax to the Handel Festival.

It was the medium of Italian opera that won Handel his first successes with the English public, but a few years after he’d resettled in England came a remarkable opportunity to try some new experiments. The expatriate composer was invited to serve as house composer at Cannons, James Brydges’ sumptuous estate just outside London. Better known to posterity as the Duke of Chandos, Brydges was a fabulously wealthy patron of the arts (that is, until he lost his fortune in the South Sea stock bubble). At Cannons Handel was able to mingle with leading literary figures of the day such as Alexander Pope and John Gay, who collaborated in writing the libretto for "Acis and Galatea."

This background isn’t merely incidental but comes directly into play in director Gilbert Blin’s staging of the piece for Boston Early Music Festival, which has undertaken its first-ever tour this spring to present "Acis and Galatea." (See a YouTube sampling here.) The classical source myth, retold by Ovid in Metamorphoses, is an ultra-simple tale of love and jealousy between humans and gods. Acis the shepherd and the nymph Galatea happily love each other, but their party is crashed by the vengeful Polyphemus (the Cyclops we also meet in Homer's Odyssey). Upset by Galatea’s rejection, Polyphemus slays his rival, who is then transformed by the grieving Galatea into a fountain.

Though it’s sometimes simply called a chamber opera or even a masque, the work is not so clearcut in its origins as a “pastoral entertainment” for the Duke of Chandos and his circle. According to Blin, the first version from 1718 (the basis for this production) was probably not staged as an all-out theatrical piece but was instead presented as kind of site-specific, allegorical performance uniquely suited to the lavish gardens and fountains of the country estate, Cannons.

Rather than feebly try to imitate this onstage, BEMF’s production reimagined "Acis" as metatheater, at times reminiscent of the layering in the Prologue to Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. It unfolded as a rehearsal of the opera at Cannons: the singers play the artistic smart set around Chandos, who take on the guise of the characters in "Acis and Galatea."

Thus Handel himself appears, singing the tenor role of the shepherd Damon (Jason McStoots), librettist John Gay doubles as the shepherd Coridon (Zachary Wilder), and Chandos and his wife assume the parts of the lovers (Aaron Sheehan and Teresa Wakim). The deformed Alexander Pope, who recites one of his pastoral odes at the beginning and obviously has a thing for Lady Chandos, becomes Polyphemus (Douglas Williams). (A sixth non-singing character (Melinda Sullivan) was added to represent another member of the Cannons household from this period.) All of this was laid out in the program’s excellent notes, though for those who hadn’t had the chance to read them, the protracted wait before the show began would have been an ideal opportunity for a quick précis of the concept from the stage.

When not singing, the artists jot down lines or review famous paintings from Chandos’ impressive art collection representing classical antiquity (Giorgione, Poussin, etc.). The paintings are being considered as possible visual “accompaniments” for "Acis," a nice conceit for an opera about the capacity of art to recapture the sense of a lost natural Arcadia. Meanwhile Handel/Damon archly interacts with the chamber orchestra of nine players sharing the stage (coaxing a melancholy phrase from Gonzalo X. Ruiz’s oboe, for example, or delighting in the birdlike warbling of Kathryn Montoya’s sopranino recorder).

Since the cast also sang the part of the chorus, these were, in a sense, triple roles. Stylized stage movement, dance, and gesturing underlined the sense of artifice, and Anna Watkins’ period costumes even included an 18th-century version of how Acis should be dressed for his final apotheosis. The artifice created an intriguing counterpoint to the emotional directness of Handel’s music. Tenor Sheehan brought both variety and supple lyricism to his portrayal of Acis, while bass Williams brooded and boomed with menace from the lower depths as Polyphemus/Pope — especially in the climactic “The flocks shall leave the mountains,” when he interrupts the lover’s duet and “deforms” it into a trio. Wakim’s lovely soprano as Galatea tended to be more uniformly sweet (even in her rejection of the Cyclops) but rang out with assurance in the choruses. Tenors McStoots and Wilder shared turns as fellow shepherds who offer advice on the workings of love.

The altogether outstanding instrumental ensemble of early-music specialists was directed by Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs (BEMF’s artistic co-directors), who also played archlute, theorbo, and guitar. Aside from occasional problems with orchestra-singer balance (at least from my position further back in the Town Hall space), the variety of colors and moods, nature imitations and dark passions, humor and lamentation, all of which Handel elicits through such economical means, came through vividly. The ensemble’s spirited playing encompassed serene legato and rhythmic verve and wrought a metamorphosis of its own on the audience, many clearly beaming with pleasure.

Still, Handel’s status as a weaver of beguiling melodies is only one facet of his genius, as "Acis" demonstrated; and that realization was driven home further by Saturday’s powerful performance of "Esther" by Pacific MusicWorks in a homegrown production. Stubbs led an ensemble that mixed local early-music talent (special kudos to harpist Maxine Eilander, who has a major role in the score) and visiting musicians, including some from the BEMF ensemble, along with Seattle’s Tudor Choir, which was adroitly prepared by Doug Fullington. Further adding to the sense of occasion was the fact that this marked the premiere of the edition of "Esther" recently prepared by Berkeley-based Handel scholar John Roberts. This edition, based on Handel’s revision of the work in 1720, involves changes in orchestration and redistributes the order of some of the material, dividing it into three distinct acts.

Despite its later popularity among his contemporaries, "Acis" turned out to be a one-off experiment. (It’s tempting to speculate on how English opera might have evolved if Handel had pursued this direction further.) "Esther," in contrast, which draws from the famous biblical story via the play from 1689 by Racine, foreshadows the highly influential genre of English oratorio that would preoccupy the composer in the final phase of his career. Both works dramatize extremely simple, ancient plots which do double duty as contemporary allegories relevant to the milieu of Chandos. In his insightful pre-concert presentation Roberts argued that "Esther" has been unjustly undervalued largely because of misunderstandings caused by the standard presentation.

The performance made a persuasive case on its own terms for Handel’s achievement in his first English oratorio. The warm, reverberant space of St. James accentuated "Esther’s" very different musical demeanor (a world apart from "Acis," above all in the ebullient choruses of triumphant Israelites which crown the third act). At the same time, the acoustic proved to be a liability for certain aspects of the score: rhythmic articulation and the clarity of Handel’s lines occasionally got lost in an undifferentiated cloud of sound, as did the distinction between "Esther’s" public and private moments.

Those who had seen "Acis" were perhaps a bit spoiled by getting to see the repeats of the da capo arias staged and thus peppered with some theatrical variety. Still, in the unstaged "Esther." the singers often added enticing musical variety to these repeated sections. With his robust tenor, Ross Hauck evoked the erotic ardor of Persian King Assuerus as he grants his “beauteous queen” Esther leave to plead her cause (which will thwart his minister Haman’s plot of genocide against the Jews). Countertenor Matthew White was plaintively eloquent as an Israelite priest, while Zachary Wilder sang “Tune your harps” with deliciously lambent lyricism. As the brave queen of the title, soprano Shannon Mercer brought such intensity to her climactic aria denouncing Haman (“Flatt’ring tongue”) that you wished Handel had given her character more to sing beyond her entrance aria and her duet with Assuerus/Xerxes (which emerged here as a charming oasis amid the turbulent emotional currents charted out by the composer). Charles Robert Stephens, though lacking bite in some earlier moments, was convincing in the scene of the humiliated Haman as he grovels vainly.

Stubbs paced the performance with a sure sense of flow and contrast, allowing the drama to happen within the music itself. The choruses that are the score’s real linchpin resounded thrillingly. Handel augments orchestra with jubilant horns in “He comes, he comes” and then rounds out "Esther" with a massive final choral number (“The Lord our enemy has slain”) that enfolds a countertenor solo and two duets, dwarfing the “Hallelujah” Chorus.

Thanks to the intrepid efforts of musicologist/producer Marty Ronish, Seattle served as host for the first time in the Handel Festival’s 30-year history. Even more, Ronish ensured that the Festival, usually centered around a few days of scholarly conferences and workshops, included a wider variety of performances, with over two dozen organizations participating. A more fitting culmination to this Handel celebration could hardly be imagined.


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