Handel: Acis and Galatea

Aaron Sheehan Acis, Teresa Wakim Galatea, Douglas Williams Polyphemus, Jason McStoots Damon, Zachary Wilder Coridon, Boston Early Music Festival Vocal & Chamber Ensembles, Paul O’Dette & Stephen Stubbs
107:18 (2 CDs)
cpo 777 877-2

Acis and Galatea established an early reputation as one of Handel’s most endearing and enduring dramatic works. The straightforward and touching simplicity of the plot (drawn from Ovid’s Metamorphoses), the modest performing forces required and – for native listeners at least – the very Englishness of the piece, with its clear debt to Purcell (an important feature only lightly touched on in Ellen T. Harris’ note) have all gone to ensure it has rarely been long out of the repertoire. The present performance emanates from a production given at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2009, although the recording was made by Radio Bremen four years later.

Judging from the photographs in the booklet, the production lived up to Boston’s reputation for stylish staging, with lavish early Georgian costumes and little in the way of sets (the original was given in the gardens of Cannons, the home of Handel’s patron, the Duke of Chandos). Performing forces, too, are – with one important exception I’ll come to in a moment – in keeping with the original, with just a couple of violins, cello and bass for the string parts. The choruses are quite properly sung one-to-a-part by the soloists, who display good ensemble and balance. The opening sinfonia bodes well, with nicely pointed playing and the contrapuntal textures clearly delineated, but already here one of the abiding flaws of so many Boston Festival recordings is revealed. That the festival has two directors of the stature of lutenists Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs has without doubt been greatly to its benefit; that both have felt it necessary to make an overly intrusive contribution to the continuo of every production has most certainly not. With such small performing forces the constant and largely superfluous plucking of the pair rapidly becomes intensely irritating, not least, I would guess, to the poor harpsichordist, who might just as well have been left at home for all the impression his contribution is allowed to make.

With the exception of bass Douglas Williams’ strongly characterised and well-focussed Polyphemus, the solo vocal roles are taken capably rather than exceptionally. Teresa Wakim has a pleasingly clean, bright soprano, but for this listener at least her singing brings little character to the role in the way Norma Burrows did so alluringly and touchingly to the 1978 John Eliot Gardiner Archiv recording. And like all her colleagues Wakim has no trill or other essential assets of a Baroque singer. Ornaments are largely unimaginative or unstylish (sometimes both), while the sustained opening note of ‘Heart, the seat of soft Delight’, for example, surely positively screams for messa di voce. Such caveats largely apply equally to the remaining singers. Aaron Sheehan is the possessor of a pleasingly mellifluous, well-produced light tenor that he uses well, but like Wakim he shows little real identification with the role of the lovelorn Acis, his arias agreeable enough but essentially featureless. The same can be said for the pallid singing of tenors of Jason McStoots (Damon) and Zachary Wilder (Coridon), the former inclined to bleat ornaments (pun not intended). The overall direction is capable enough, though there might been rather more rhythmic ‘lift’ at times, while I found ‘Mourn all ye muses’ overly sentimental in a very 21st century way, a musical equivalent to the piles of dead flowers that mark the locations of tragic death.

The set is completed by a performance of the brief chamber cantata ‘Sarei troppo felice’, HWV 157 (1707) by Amanda Forsythe (who sings 2nd soprano in the chorus of Acis). Her singing is certainly more characterful than anything in the pastoral, but at times marred by excessive vibrato. Notwithstanding its age, the Gardiner has far more to offer, in addition to Burrows fielding the splendid Acis of Anthony Rolfe Johnson. There is also a more recent and highly regarded set by John Butt and his Dunedin forces that I’ve not heard.

Brian Robins