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Boston Early Music Festival produces first-rate ‘Acis and Galatea’

Soprano Teresa Wakim performing at Jordan Hall on Sunday.Boston Early Music Festival/BEMF

Part of the enjoyment of the Boston Early Music Festival's own productions is how lightly they often seem to wear the indeterminacy of historically informed performance: how any re-creation of centuries-past music-making is guesswork, however educated. BEMF's 2009 staging of the original, 1718 chamber version of George Frideric Handel's "Acis and Galatea" likewise stacked nested boxes of historical fact and whimsical speculation. Last weekend, at Jordan Hall, BEMF revived that "Acis" to celebrate a fixed point — its newly released recording of the work — but the performance still danced between excellence and elusiveness.

Handel's pastoral, with text by John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes, charts, in sophisticated style, its Ovid-derived nymphs-and-shepherds love triangle between Acis, Galatea, and the cyclops Polyphemus. Gilbert Blin's staging overlaid a period-piece backstage musical, its setting the site of its premiere (Cannons, the lavish rural estate of James Brydges, Lord Chandos), creators and patrons acting the roles: Lord and Lady Chandos as the titular lovers, Pope as Polyphemus (in amorous tension with Lady Chandos), Handel and Gay as singing shepherds.


An additional layer — ubiquitous, stylized, balletic movement by Melinda Sullivan (who also glided silently as Margherita de L'Epine, a favorite singer of Handel's) — added further polish, and further distance. The score's (admittedly slight) dramatic tension was largely jettisoned. Instead, the audience was invited to tease out parallels and double meanings: an elaborate, clever pastime, but one in which the rules of the game often remained opaque.

The music-making was first-rate. Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs presided over a fluid, elegant performance from the onstage orchestra. Four-fifths of the production's original cast returned. Tenor Jason Mc-Stoots's bustling, fussing Handel settled into limpid, lithely ornamented arias. As Lord Chandos, Aaron Sheehan used his unfailingly polished mien and tenor voice to embody a self-consciously theatrical aristocrat. Teresa Wakim turned her soprano to finely spun effect, eschewing brilliance for pervasive lyricism, Lady Chandos gathering the music around her like an emotional cushion. Douglas Williams's characterization of Pope-as-Polyphemus's tortured despair was more broad, vocally and physically, than before, but his bass still rolled forth, sepulchrally precise. The newcomer, tenor Mark Williams, as John Gay, delivered the shepherd Coridon's aria with almost startling sweetness.


That aria — "Would you gain the tender creature" — was the production's momentarily unadorned heart, Gay comforting Pope with the work's overarching philosophy: "Suff'ring is the Lover's part." The tragedy plays out: Polyphemus kills Acis, who is then transformed into a bubbling spring, an ending tailor-made for one of the extravagances at Cannons, the elaborate, imitation-of-Versailles waterworks. Such excess later prompted Pope to pen lines widely assumed to refer to the Chandos estate: "At Timon's villa let us pass a day, / Where all cry out, 'What sums are thrown away!' " BEMF's "Acis," intimate as it was, channeled similar, showy leisure. But one also felt the work's stealthy poetic demurral: Everything — love, youth, power, wealth — eventually, inevitably, is lost to time.

Music Review

Boston Early Music Festival

Handel: "Acis and Galatea." Gilbert Blin, stage director; Paul O'Dette and Stephen Stubbs, music directors. At Jordan Hall, Sunday

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.