Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra & Chorale 2020 Review: Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

G.F.Handel’s Baroque Splendor

By Lois Silverstein
(Credit: Frank Wing)

“Aci, Galatea e Polifemo” is probably not one of those Handel works that you remember prominently. But it can definitely be among the most memorable when produced with the passion on display in San Francisco recently.

Under Nicholas McGegan’s expert baton, the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players’ and producers Anthony Roth Costanzo and Cath Brittan and Brooklyn’s National Sawdust gave a wondrous performance of the score in San Francisco, after years of artistic planning.

Based on Ovid’s story in the Metamorphosis, Book XIII about a sea-nymph, a shepherd and a cyclops, the production by stage director Christopher Alden gave the work a penetrating interpretation of the original story: immigrants today under the control of modern economic power.
It was a tour-de-force.

The minimalist stage set by Seth Reiser and Paul Tate Depoo III, beguiled. It featured an off-center back drop of blue and white Delft-style tiles – fish, crabs, a large, claw-foot white bathtub, and a single, elegantly scrolled chandelier.

Scene One opened with two identically dressed “chamber-maids” designed by Terese Wadden in army green uniforms, rubber gloves, croc/clogs, bouffant hair caps. They carried swifter mops – side-by-side to clean the room, offering a perfect symmetry of action, mop-movement and steps; each contact with floor or wall was accompanied by a thud, parallel facial expressions, and, of course, voices.

Dominating Power

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, as Galatea, and soprano Lauren Stouffer, as Aci, sang with sumptuous precision and warmth, each word articulating their plight. Polifemo, the catalyst of doom in this situation, the lustful and demanding boss, was interpreted with dominating power by bass-baritone Davone Tines.

Since Aci and Galatea are lovers as well as comrades this plight is heightened. Line by line as well as movement by movement, we experienced it in all three performers – physical grabbing and pressing of hands and bodies, lunging steps forward and back, heads intruding into personal space and being pushed back out. There was intense emotion expressed in each arpeggio, each cadenza, each character’s foray to achieve his/her goal. Never did the embroidering of notes seem extra or out of place. Instead, the richness of the texture conveyed the depth of the conflict.

Costanza’s countertenor sound conveyed the dramatic intensity from beginning to end. His voice always rang with depth and body, in his highest tones and in his lows. The trills were satisfyingly long and clean.

His acting was also seamless. From facial flexibility to vibrant tone and fluidity, each precise was an expression of the tension. His whole body communicated rage, longing, despair, and aspiration.  He seemed at once singer and dancer. No part of his performance lacked communication. Throughout the entire opera, he remained present and active.

The culmination of the aria “Lasciarmi solo,” the precursor to his violent and impassioned suicide, did not fail to ignite us with grief and drop us into sorrow. The “blood” dripping down the tiled walls did not over-dramatize in its graphic detail. Nor did the thuds along the bathtub edges. In fact, these, combined with other thuds and stampings against the walls and along the floor in combination with orchestral accents, strengthened the foreboding that kept surging in music and voice from all three performers.



Lucidity & Gravity

Soprano Lauren Snouffer as Aci sang with lucidity and gravity and great beauty. When she increased her volume at key moments, her range thrilled.

In sound and action, she remained the ideal partner, soaring sound, resilience, vibrancy, ardor, and clean expression of feelings – despair, longing, helplessness, determination. Cleaning the bathtub, for example, she sang “Beware of the heart” and its fluctuating rhythms with exactitude, alongside the deft flutters of the winds, their alternating accents capturing the pulse of human conflict to perfection.

When Costanzo joined in, the tension rose to the extreme. First there was solo, then duet, then solo, – heart-rending, and exquisite. In fact, it was almost hard to believe this was singing, it had almost transcended consciousness of form. The sharp focus conveyed the futility of their situation and from which it was impossible to break free. She wove the net of hate, violent desire, and despair tighter as she tried alone and alongside her beloved for liberation. The union of their voices and their feelings thoroughly communicated it

Davone Tines, bass-baritone conveyed the power of oppression with artistry, both in voice and physical presence. His every movement expressed entitlement and determination. Lust and desire resonated in every gesture. He never flinched. He was definitely the catalyst, instrumenting action in each bold body grab; he knew what he wanted and he was hell-bent on getting it.

When he reached for Galatea, he touched all her body; never did we doubt the authenticity of appetite. The intimate size of the theater increased the anxiety of impending violation. The vocal repetition heightened the fear. He didn’t need an actual razor to convey danger, but when he held it, it took the fear to another level.

His voice remained constant and rich in range, even though some low notes could have used more weight and more precise articulation. He also worked very well with the shifting projections of tiles turning into windows and eyes and disappearing into a blur of empty space and shadow. Toward the finale, the illuminating of the chandelier accented the “light” on the situation: we see clearly and we are moved to an awe that gives us a galavanizing perspective. What will we do about this inequity? It is at once entertainment and message. That was what brought the whole performance to another depth.



Flawless Grace

McGegan conducted the Philharmonia Baroque Chamber Players’ with flawless grace and exactitude. He has been named “one of the finest baroque conductors of his generation” and this is the last season of his 34-year tenure as Music Director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale.

The fluent sound he brought forth from his musicians came from historically accurate instruments, from the Baroque and early-Romantic periods, all 11 of them: violin and viola, violoncello, double bass, oboe and recorder, bassoon and trumpet, theorbo, guitar, and, harpsichord.

PBO musicians are nationally renown as performers and many are members of various music faculties across the United States, i.e., Juilliard, Harvard, Stanford, among others.

Their sound was fluent and luxurious, distinct, precise, the brass bold and bright, the recorder delicate, the strings and harpsichord a filigree of exactness and sweetness. Together they deepened the layers of meaning and drama already being woven on the stage.

Together with the singers they created a tapestry of beauty that unfurled like waves. The first thing we wanted at the end of the performance was for it to begin again.  Full and plentiful, luxurious, powerful, the production shone with splendor.

Yes, that is the only word for it: Splendid.


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