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Lully's Acis et Galatée

Newspaper Review:

Tim Page, Opera Lafayette's 'Acis et Galatee': Lush and Lovely (Washington Post, February 22): note that the photo included with that article is from a previous production
As I mentioned last month, I met the Executive Director of Opera Lafayette at a concert. I was all too happy to follow through on her invitation to see their newest production yesterday, Jean-Baptiste Lully's Acis et Galatée. It was the last operatic work that Lully completed, and it was premiered on September 6, 1686, at the Château d'Anet, in the same year as Lully's greatest success, Armide, and shortly before he died. Opera Lafayette did not really mount a production of the opera at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, at the University of Maryland. This was a concert performance of Lully's pastorale héroïque, with the chorus and soloists behind music stands in two rings behind the orchestra. What did add immeasurably to this arrangement was Catherine Turocy and four other dancers from her New York Baroque Dance Company, in costumes and with a few props. Opera Lafayette and the slate of top-tier Baroque singers it brought together for this performance had attracted a nearly full house, which listened to some introductory remarks from the Clarice Smith Center's Executive Director.

The story comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, specifically from the end of Book 13. Acis (sung by experienced Baroque tenor Howard Crook) falls in love with a sea nymph, Galatea, daughter of Neptune (soprano Gaële Le Roi, in a cream gown with a scallop motif recalling her marine character), who is in turn loved by the cyclops Polyphemus (Bernard Deletré, a very resonant bass who had a lot of fun raging away as the odious giant). These three lead singers all performed admirably, although I had trouble hearing them in certain passages, probably due to their placement behind the orchestra and far away from the audience. These problems were slightly worse for the supporting singers, all of whom sang quite well nevertheless. (This is hardly Opera Lafayette's fault, since the Elsie and Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall does not have an orchestra pit.) Ryan Brown's conducting involved his whole body in dancelike motions that did not distract, with well-chosen tempi creating striking unanimity in his players. Instrumentalists and singers all introduced very pretty ornamentation in their lines as appropriate to this music.

As with many of Lully's operas, the libretto of Acis et Galatée, by Jean Galbert de Campistron and not Lully's longtime collaborator Quinault, is somewhat pedestrian. Lully mostly avoids the Italian operatic tendency to feature singers with flashy arias, and this opera is no exception. The characters have sections of their texts set in Lully's signature arioso with a few aria-like pieces here and there. An exception is in the third act, after Polyphemus crushes his rival, Acis, with a huge rock. Galatea rises up from the sea, where she was hiding, and sings a long sort of scena, which showed off Ms. Le Roi's voice in a range of tempos and styles. You have to be careful of the Greco-Roman gods: in response to Galatea's plea that Acis be brought back to life from his unjust murder, the gods revive him, only to transform him into a river. This was one of the nicer effects provided by the dancers, who could have appeared more than they did (Lully's music seemed somewhat lifeless without more visual spectacle): they appeared as a stream of river divinities, in blue and aqua costumes, around a dancer as the metamorphosed Acis, for the final divertissement.

Lully was famous for his composition of extended passacailles, pieces based on the ostinato repetition of repeating bass line, usually on a four-bar, stepwise descending bass line, the minor mode tetrachord from do to sol. (The effect of this sort of piece, or of the related genre of the chaconne, as I said in a review of a concert I heard in Manchester last summer, is "a hypnotic suspension of the normal rules of harmony, allowing Baroque composers to introduce daring progressions.") The passacaille that concludes this opera is a doozie, lasting for most of the final scene, and involving two bass patterns in alternation, one descending and one ascending. The dancers provided beautiful motions during the orchestral interludes between the singing of soloists and chorus, all adding to the seemingly endless sequence of variation that Lully spins out minute after minute. Typical of the artificiality that led Lully to begin all of his operas with a sycophantic prologue, addressed to Louis XIV (or in this case to his son, the Grand Dauphin, who was honored at the Anet celebrations where this opera was premiered), the opera concludes by drawing attention to the presence of the audience in its story, with its final lines: "Sous ses lois l'Amour veut qu'on jouisse / D'un bonheur qui jamais ne finisse: / Tendres cœurs, venez tous / en jouir avec nous" (Under its laws Love wants us to enjoy an unending happiness: tender hearts, come all to enjoy it with us).

A note to Washington National Opera: it might be time to starting thinking about staging a Baroque opera. I have written here about how both the Opéra de Lyon (Poppea) and Opéra de Paris (Hercules) have teamed up with Les Arts Florissants to stage Baroque operas, and Concerto Vocale has been on the stage in Paris, and countertenors have even been at the Met (Rodelinda). WNO could do worse than partnering with Opera Lafayette to do a full staging of a Baroque opera at Lisner for their 2007 season. Opera did not begin with Mozart, people.

For its final performance of the season, Opera Lafayette will present Antonio Sacchini's Oedipe à Colone (1786), again at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, on Saturday, May 14, at 8 pm.

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