Boston Goes Gaga for Handel

The BEMF Reprises Acis and Galatea

By: - Dec 09, 2015

“The Power of Love: The Passions of Handel and Vivaldi”
Apollo’s Fire
Jeannette Sorrell, conductor and harpsichordist
Amanda Forsythe, soprano
A selection of opera arias by George Frideric Handel and instrumental music by Antonio Vivaldi and Marco Uccellini
First Church, Cambridge
Nov. 20, 2015


“The Power of Love” (one CD)
Arias from Handel Operas and his ballet score from “Terpsichore”
Apollo’s Fire led by Jeannette Sorrell
Recorded in April and October, 2014, St. Paul’s Church, Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Avie Records AV2350

“Acis and Galatea,” a pastoral entertainment
Original 1718 chamber version
Music by George Frideric Handel
Words by John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes
Boston Early Music Festival
Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, music directors
The Boston Early Music Festival Chamber Ensemble, Robert Mealy concertmaster
Stage director: Gilbert Blin; Costume designer: Anna Watkins
Cast: Aaron Sheehan, tenor (Acis, a shepherd); Teresa Watkins, soprano (Galatea, a Nereid); Jason McStoots, tenor (Damon, a shepherd); Mark Williams, tenor (Coridon, a shepherd); Douglas Williams, bass-baritone (Polyphemus, a Cyclops); Melinda Sullivan, a dancer (a Nymph)
Jordan Hall, Boston
Nov. 28 & 29

“Acis and Galatea” (two CDs)
George Frideric Handel
Recorded June 27-July 1, 2013, Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany
The same cast with tenor Zachary Wilder replacing Mark Williams as Coridon
“Sarei Troppo Felice”
Music by George Frideric Handel; text by Benedetto Pamphilj
A Roman cantata from 1707
Amanda Forsythe, soprano
Boston Early Music Festival and Radio Bremen
cpo 777 877-2


Toward the end of November, the tribes gathered, if separated by a river, a week, a church and a concert hall. The tribes being the ripest fruit of the early music movement Boston currently has to offer, aided and abetted by collaborators from Cleveland, New York, the West coast and other ports where early music flourishes.

The focus was on the group of extraordinary young singers who trained and found work here and remained loyal to their early supporting organizations and audience while forging national and international careers.

Beyond the sterling musicianship and the joy delivered to listeners, what made the two events especially noteworthy was that both were accompanied by CD releases. The Boston Early Music Festival, which has produced eight recordings of baroque operas, released its long-awaited CD of “Acis and Galatea,” Handel’s first work set to English texts. And Amanda Forsythe, the most brilliant singer to have emerged here since Lorraine Hunt 40 years ago, released her first collection of opera arias, all by Handel, with Apollo’s Fire, Cleveland’s dynamic period orchestra.

Although the CD business is in decline in the Pop music world, it continues to be the standard in classical music – who wants to download classical music movement by movement, aria by aria? For a while sales were so light, it looked as if classical CDs might cease to exist. Major labels cut back or folded. Orchestras as esteemed as the Boston Symphony Orchestra lost their lucrative contracts. But the audience wants to hear new music or, more accurately, new recordings of old music, and musical organizations took things into their own hands, self-producing and self-distributing, the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas leading the charge. In the old days, 20 years ago, you went to a concert and bought a related CD at a record store. Now, you buy the CD at intermission (or on line).

With its CD releases, the Boston Early Music Festival has broadened its brand, as they say, to Europe and beyond. All impeccably produced, they are increasingly acknowledged by the music world and record industry as setting the standards. Having been nominated three times previously, the BEMF won its first Grammy for best opera recording in 2015, for the pastiche “La Descente d’Orphee aux Enfers” and “La Couronne de Fleurs,” two true obscurities by French composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier. It also won the German Klassik Award for best 17th/18th century opera recording of the year for the same disc.

And the prizes keep coming in Europe, which might be more important since baroque music is considered more central to the repertory there than in the United States outside, of course, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. The BEMF’s recording of Agostino Steffani’s “Niobe: Regina di Tebe” has already won awards in Germany (a second Klassik Award for best world premiere recording), France (a Diapason d’Or) and the UK. The BEMF is keeping its fingers crossed for the announcement of 2016 GRAMMY nominations, which will be made later this month.

[THIS JUST IN: Grammy nominations have been announced and the BEMF’s recording is one of the five opera recordings in competition. But there’s more. Skip to the post-script if you want to know: four Boston based organizations are in the running, two in the opera category.]

Thanksgiving weekend is traditionally marked by the BEMF with a semi-staged, chamber-scaled production – the two Charpentier operas were part of that series. This year instead of mounting a new production, it brought back the popular “Acis and Galatea,” which it premiered in 2009 and reprised in 2011 after having taken it on a North American tour.

“Acis and Galatea” is not a true opera, but “a pastoral entertainment” written for the country house Cannons, the seat of the Duke of Chandos, one of the great British arts patrons of the 18th century. The work, whatever you want to call it, is a total delight, filled with infectious melodies, ensembles and choruses, many of which you’ve heard before even if you never knew it.

Aside from the extraordinary performances, what made the production such a great success was stage director Gilbert Blin’s conceit. In his inspired vision, the opera is a work in progress in the picture gallery of the great house, the characters played by members of the household and their guests. Lord Chandos plays the shepherd Acis and his wife the sea nymph Galatea – prefiguring Marie Antoinette’s pretend-play at being a shepherdess. The librettists John Gay plays Coridon and Alexander Pope, Polyphemus, and Handel himself plays Damon. The staging shows Handel producing new music as the singing goes on, delivering his fresh pages to the characters to be sung, while, new paintings by Poussin, Claude Lorrain and Giorgione are brought in and put on easels for the Duke’s approval. A total delight – as I think I said before.

The story derives from Ovid, and is very simple: Acis loves the sea nymph Galatea, but the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus wants Galatea for himself. When she rejects his crude advances in favor of Acis, Polyphemus hurls a stone and kills the shepherd. General mourning ensues among the inhabitants of this little Eden, as Poussin’s great painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” (I, death, exist even in Arcadia), rests on the easel. Galatea uses her powers as a goddess to transform her dead beloved into a river god, so happiness of a sort is restored.

I have found the opera in the two previous times I’ve heard it to be totally enchanting, the cast bringing out the innocence and brightness of the music with joy. The opening chorus, “O, the Pleasure of the Plains/Happy Nymphs and happy Swains” - admittedly a little hippy-dippy - is one of the sunniest compositions Handel ever wrote, and he excelled at writing sunny music. Previously it brought tears of joy to my eyes.

This time something was off. Maybe the cast is tired of the little work, which they’ve sung so often, maybe they didn’t rehearse enough to bring it to the same pulsating life after not having done it together since 2011. Maybe they partied too much after the opening night. Maybe it was the difference between an evening and matinee audience. Maybe it’s just in the nature of the performing arts – some performances click, some less so. Maybe I’ve heard it one time too many. In any case, my eyes didn’t mist during the opening chorus, and other joyful – and tragic - moments were muted.

Of course, it was still a delight, but not quite intoxicating. Teresa Wakim is probably the great Galatea of her generation, and she did not disappoint, bringing a ravishing soprano to all of her solos, particularly those with Gonzalo X. Ruiz on baroque oboe, in which both she and he replicated a sort of song-and-response bird-song, as well as her moments in the chorus. (The soloists all comprised the chorus, which could be confusing, but was not.)

Tenor Jason McStoots, the great comic actor of the Boston troupe, made Handel an amusing busy-body, even mock-conducting the orchestra for a moment with his clay pipe, but turning out his reliably dulcet tones in charming arias like “Consider, fond Shepherd.” A new addition to major leagues in the company, tenor Mark Williams, replacing Zachary Wilder, who appeared in earlier performances and is on the recording, acquitted himself admirably, spinning out lovely tone in his aria, “Would you gain the tender Creature/Softly, gently, kindly treat her,” his sage advice to the incorrigible Polyphemus.

The disappointments were the two male stalwarts of the company, Aaron Sheehan and Douglas Williams. Sheehan remains a great early music tenor, his sweet voice full of individual character, but as he has matured – he is still a young man – his extraordinary, swoon-worthy choirboy high notes seem to have deserted him. The change was most noticeable in his stentorian aria, “Love sounds th’Alarm and Fear is a-flying!” which would have set your teeth on edge if you hadn’t heard him sing it previously, but for those who have, it was less ringing in tone.

Douglas Williams, who remains the great Polyphemus of his generation, was even a greater disappointment. Indeed, he was the blistered heart of the Mark Morris production, which was otherwise miscast vocally, that appeared here last year as part of a nationwide tour. His great aria, “I rage, I melt, I burn,” which seared your heart the previous times I’ve heard him sing it, in BEMF performances and with Mark Morris, lacked the intensity I remembered. Still, an agile actor as well as a great singer, Williams remains an early music star.

When I got home, I wondered if my reactions were off. I reread my 2011 review, and noted that after Wakim delivered her first aria, the audience erupted in applause and that after that nearly every solo turn elicited the same response, which seemed to spur the singers on to ever greater heights. At Sunday afternoon’s performance, there were no outbursts for individual contributions, but the audience did erupt in rapturous applause at the end of the performance. It was indeed a delight, a wonderful way to spend a Thanksgiving weekend, but it wasn’t the ecstatic experience, at least for me, that the earlier outings were.

The recording, which was made in 2013, is something else. The performers are hot. But, of course, the recording loses something of the wonderful stage production. You don’t see Jason McStoots as Handel fussily stage-managing the proceedings, you don’t see Douglas Williams with his black eye patch lurking in the shadows at the back of the stage, you don’t see Aaron Sheehan going behind a curtain and emerging as a laurel-crowned river god, you don’t see how beautiful Teresa Wakim looks in her wig and costume, you don’t see the great paintings being unveiled for Lord Chandos’s approval. You always lose something when a live performance is reproduced, but you also gain something – sound balance, perfection, etc. It’s a recording I will listen to with pleasure for years to come.

As a bonus there is a cantata, “Sarei troppo felice,” composed by Handel during his early 18th century Roman sojourn. (By coincidence, during my own recent Roman holiday – only a week alas - I revisited the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj, where Handel, as well as Alessandro Scarlatti, performed, whose duke at the time wrote the libretto.) In the BEMF recording, soprano Amanda Forsythe, our local, nonpareil early music star, is the soloist.

“Sarei troppo felice” is not the greatest of Handel’s Roman cantatas. (The operatic tyro, who was constrained from composing opera in Rome by a puritanical pope who forbade operatic performances, composed some 100 secular cantatas, many of them dramatically and musically riveting.) One wonders why the BEMF chose this particular work. Maybe it hadn’t already been recorded. Anyway, it ends the CD on a strangely dull note; indeed, it seems to hit a brick wall at its conclusion, an unfortunate final note to an infectious 2-disk CD. Which is not to say that Forsythe failed in her assignment. As the concert and recording in which she starred with Apollo’s Fire demonstrated, she is an incandescent singer and performer.

The Apollo’s Fire concert at Cambridge’s First Church, despite its uncongenial acoustics, was a total love fest. Forsythe, of course, elicited the major part of the affection, but she was matched by a totally compatible instrumental ensemble. We’re used to hearing her locally with simpatico colleagues in the BEMF and Boston Baroque, but this was a group from Cleveland, Ohio, which doesn’t register first among cities where early music is understood and played. But, boy, with Jeannette Sorrell’s Apollo’s Fire, is it. This is the group that astonished a couple of years ago at Emmanuel Church as accompanists to Philippe Jaroussky, the reigning counter-tenor in the world, the headliner in the BEMF’s Grammy nominated CD of “Niobe.”

Led by fiery-red head Sorrell, who stands at her raised harpsichord to conduct her players, the group plays with rhythmic verve and passion. And the players dress with style – something their dowdy Boston counterparts could learn from. The lead violinist, Montrealer Olivier Brault, wore a tight black suit in the 18th century style and pulled his slicked black hair back on his head to explode in a ponytail fastened with a long yellow satin ribbon. He was not above stamping his foot when the moment called for it.

The concert included arias by Handel and instrumental pieces by Vivaldi. Titled “The Power of Love,” it was divided into three parts, “First Love,” “Jealousy” and “Delusions & Madness,” which sought to limn the progress of love from early infatuation to final disillusionment. But that was a just a scaffold, flimsy at moments, to provide opportunities for Forsythe to demonstrate vocal pyrotechnics. BTW, diva that she is, Forsythe went through two costume changes. In “First Love,” she wore a sexy outfit, slit to her navel, her hair loose. After intermission, she returned in a new gown with a full skirt, her hair up. In the final section, “Delusion and Madness,” she wore a champagne colored skirt with a sparkly top. She looked terrific in all three.

The concert opened with a short “bergamasca,” a rustic northern Italian dance by Marco Uccellini (1603-1680), which announced right off the bat that this was going to be a lively evening, whatever its stated theme.

The first two arias, from “Ariodante” and “Alcina,” expressed that guileless innocence of first love. In “Tornami a vagheggia” (Look at me again), Forsythe demonstrated her total mastery of baroque style. Her ornamentations were text-based, yet vocally thrilling, her pinpoint perfect high notes exhilarating. I’ve never heard the frequently excerpted aria sung with such rigorous musicianship and high style. Tighten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, this was going to be an exciting evening.

In the “Jealousy” section, the only vocal piece, “Geloso tormento” (The torment of jealousy is tearing at my heart), was a revelation to me. From Handel’s first surviving opera, “Almira,” which the BEMF presented in 2012, it totally escaped my memory of ever having heard it. I found the endless opera, composed for Hamburg in German with a few inserted Italian arias, a long slog. I must have nodded off when Forsythe sang this aria. (I also thought she was not her best that evening.) But what a wonderful piece, and Forsythe nailed it both in concert and in the recording. Accompanied by Debra Nagy’s oboe and a mass of percussively insistent strings, it was a true ensemble piece. Hearing it made me realize why the BEMF went to the considerable effort of mounting the opera. Would I want to hear it in full again? Emphatically no, but it was great to hear Forsythe bring at least an aria from it to life.

Time to give Vivaldi his due, although it’s too bad Sorrell and Forsythe didn’t include an aria from one of his operas, which are increasingly getting presented and recorded. In the final third of the concert, Vivaldi’s variation on “La Folia,” the 18th century’s big hit, allowed Apollo’s Fire to assert itself and take center stage. Based on a Portuguese song, it has an infectious melody and rhythmic drive, which, after a stately start, grows in intensity to a point of frenzy. Brault led the band with spirit – it was the moment when he used his heel technique. By the end you half expected the stage to erupt in chaos.

“La Folia” led to what was for me the evening’s highlight, Handel’s great aria, “Piangerò la mia sorte” (I will lament my fate/so cruel and mean) from “Giulio Cesare in Egitto,” arguably his greatest opera. It is sung by Cleopatra, who has seduced Caesar, but fears now that false reports of his death doom her. Even with a second-rate singer “Piangerò” is heartbreaking, but Forsythe takes it to a higher – indeed, the highest – level. Her personal and inventive ornamentations in the da capo (from the top) repeat cement her artistry and redeem a format that has been denigrated by 19th and 20th century musicologists unfamiliar with baroque practice.

Briefly, the standard for baroque opera was what came to be called the A-B-A pattern. A theme was stated, it was contrasted, and finally it was repeated. Whether it was upbeat, downbeat, upbeat or the reverse, it was said to be static, that there was no dramatic momentum. As baroque opera was revived, the final repeat was often cut from many performances, saving time to be sure – “Giulio Cesare” clocks in at four hours, Wagner territory – but losing the drama built into a single aria. At the Apollo Fire’s concert, and fortunately, in the recording that accompanies it, Forsythe demonstrates with exquisite artistry the genius of the A-B-A structure. She sings the intro, which is itself heartbreaking, then she turns to fire and anger: she will torment her tormentors night and day after her death as a ghost. Finally, realizing the folly of her fantasy, she returns to the first theme, which she makes even more heartbreaking with her ornamentations, delicate variations on the written melody. This is when opera comes closest to jazz. With her rendition of “Piangerò,” Forsythe set a new standard. I’ve never heard another singer equal her.

Fortunately, Apollo Fire made a recording that captures Forsythe at this peak moment of her career, which seems to be a hot item. A friend told me he tried to order a couple of CDs for Christmas gifts on Amazon and it was already sold out. So be patient until it gets more in stock - or order directly from Apollo’s Fire. (It’s too bad that Craig Smith and Emmanuel Music during its heyday, when Lorraine Hunt, not yet Lieberson, James Maddalena and Sanford Sylan were among its core singers, failed to make recordings of those great singers at their best. We owe any memories of Hunt from that time to Nicholas McGegan and Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in Berkeley.)

The CD includes all the arias that Forsythe sang at the concert plus a few others from major operas like “Orlando,” “Serse” and “Partenope.” There is no Vivaldi or Uccellini, but Handel’s suite of dance tunes, “Terpsichore,” of which only one was played in the concert, is performed here in toto, although broken up to relieve the vocal program.

The CD records Forsythe’s voice at its height, but it also lacks the presence of a live performance – Forsythe’s smoldering essence, her fiery glances, the look of pure despair on her face, which seems ready to burst into tears, in “Piangerò.” But that’s the difference between a live performance and facsimile of it. The recording captures an audible moment in time, but it can never approximate the experience of hearing music in a live space. Still, this, like the BEMF’s “Acis and Galatea,” is an artifact I will listen to for years to come.

POSTSCRIPT: The BEMF received its fifth Grammy Award nomination this week for its extraordinary recording of Steffani’s “Niobe: Regina di Tebe.” But it will be competing in the opera category with another Boston early music group, Boston Baroque, which garnered a nomination for its extraordinary recording of Monteverdi’s penultimate opera, “Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria.” That’s two nominations out of five for Boston musical organizations, and this is not supposed to be an opera town. Not so when it comes to early music.

Other local groups also received nominations. In the orchestral category, the BSO under new music director Andris Nelsons received a nod for its recording of Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony. Local pianist Marc-André Hamelin was nominated with the Takács Quartet for his playing in Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. And composer Andrew Norman’s “Play” received a nomination for best contemporary composition. I don’t think Norman is a locally based composer, but the organization that played the piece on CD, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, most certainly.