24 February 2016

CD REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel — ACIS AND GALATEA and SAREI TROPPO FELICE (A. Sheehan, T. Wakim, D. Williams, J. McStoots, Z. Wilder, A. Forsythe; cpo 777 877-2)

IN REVIEW: Georg Friedrich Händel - ACIS AND GALATEA (cpo 777 877-2)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Acis and Galatea, HWV 49a [original chamber version of 1718] and Sarei troppo felice, HWV 157Aaron Sheehan (Acis), Teresa Wakim (Galatea), Douglas Williams (Polyphemus), Jason McStoots (Damon), Zachary Wilder (Coridon); Amanda Forsythe (soprano – HWV 157); Vocal and Chamber Ensembles of Boston Early Music Festival; Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs, leaders [Recorded in the Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany, 27 June – 1 July 2013; cpo 777 877-2; 2 CDs, 107:18; Available from ClassicsOnlineHD (Download | Streaming), jpc (Germany), Amazon (USA), fnac (France), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Whether the medium at hand is literary, musical, political, or visual, the Zeitgeist of an age is of necessity manifested in the creative energy of its artists. There are of course Existentialist ties among artists, their work, and their communities, but the bonds that unite a work of art with its physical, social, and temporal environments are often as unglamorous as financing and fortuitous intersections of space and supplies. From the relatively broad perspective facilitated by the Twenty-First Century’s unprecedented access to information, it seems extraordinary that a society that, if accounts by writers of the ilk of Lytton Strachey are to be trusted, so dismayed Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, with its paucities of discipline, imagination, and integrity should a century before Victoria’s ascension in 1837 have inspired Georg Friedrich Händel to create for its entertainment some of the finest music produced in the first half of the Eighteenth Century. It has sometimes been suggested by observers for whom art begins and ends with money changing hands that Händel was essentially an opportunist: with a new, friendly dynasty upon the throne, Britain was a singer in search of a song, and Händel marketed himself as just the man to write it. He faced obstacles and suffered losses in the capital along the Thames that would have sent opportunists scurrying back to the Continent, however, and in the last fifteen years of his life he gave Britain several of his greatest scores, gifts that musical Britons did very little to deserve. It cannot have solely been opportunism that compelled the stern composer to permanently trade Halle for Mayfair, but there is no question that Händel and the English musical establishment enjoyed a mutually-beneficial relationship that continues to pay lavish returns.

Before permanently throwing his lot in with that of the English in 1712, Händel followed the tide of his burgeoning interest in opera, ignited in Hamburg, to the land of the genre’s birth. Continuing the serendipitous pattern of recording studio-made souvenirs of lauded Boston Early Music Festival performances, this cpo release unites Händel’s early Italian cantata ‘Sarei troppo felice’ (HWV 157) with the 1718 Cannons edition of the pastoral masque Acis and Galatea. Composed in September 1707 during the young Händel’s fruitful time in Rome and contemporaneously with Rodrigo, his first opera wholly in Italian, ‘Sarei troppo felice’ uses a text wholly or partially by Cardinal Benedetto Pamphilj. Unfortunately, the full manuscript of the cantata is not known to survive, but despite its early date—Händel was twenty-two years old when it was completed—the score often reveals the composer’s fledgling ingenuity at its most expressive. Sung for cpo by soprano Amanda Forsythe and accompanied in part by gambist Laura Jeppesen, ‘Sarei troppo felice’ proves to be an intriguing companion for Acis and Galatea. One of today’s most impressive singers in any repertory, Forsythe here makes much of little, heightening the emotional significance of each repetition of the opening line, ‘Sarei troppo felice.’ She phrases the Largo ‘Se al pensier dar mai potrò’ with great feeling, her use of text enabling the listener to sense the words’ meaning without comprehending a single syllable of Italian. The disquietude that floods her voice when she sings ’Clori, schernita Clori’ seems to flow from the most intimate recesses of her soul, and the emotive power of her traversals of ’Giusto Ciel se non ho sorte’ and ’Ah! che un cieco ho per guida’ is, on a scale appropriate to Händel’s music, no less than that borne by the utterances of an insightful Fiordiligi or Gilda. That Forsythe is an important singer is a fact acknowledged by virtually every listener fortunate enough to have heard her, and her singing of ‘Sarei troppo felice’ here confirms that she is an artist with the rare capacities to discern in any music a journey of the heart and to guide the listener in discerning—and exploring—it, too.

It was during his residency at Cannons, the Middlesex seat of the eventual Duke of Chandos [prior to 1719, when his Marquessate and Dukedom were created by the Crown, His Grace was but a lowly Baron, Viscount, and Earl], that Händel composed Acis and Galatea, the twelve Chandos Anthems, and the earliest of his pioneering English oratorios, Esther. Using as his libretto an adaptation of John Dryden’s translations of Ovid on which John Gay, John Hughes, and other writers, perhaps even Alexander Pope, likely collaborated, Acis and Galatea in its Purcellian masque form was completed in 1718. The circumstances of its first performance are unknown, but it is logically conjectured that a masque in which the hero is granted riparian immortality was conceived for al fresco performance, Cannons boasting of greatly-admired waterworks in its gardens. BEMF’s 2009 production sought to restore to Händel’s 1718 pastoral masque the authentic provenance of its birth, and this recording offers felicitous proof of the Festival’s success. Dismissive critical assessments of the scale of the performance—and the singers’ individual performances—on these discs, some authored by generally respected advocates for Baroque repertory, are mystifying. It is important that the 1718 Acis and Galatea not be confused with its brethren in the Händel catalogue, the 1708 Neapolitan serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, the three-act 1732 score premièred by Anna Maria Strada del Pò, Senesino, and Antonio Montagnana, and the 1739 two-act English adaptation. Measured against the proper standard, that of the known and probable contexts of the first performance of the Cannons version, the performance spurred by the bar-raising work of the BEMF Vocal and Chamber Ensembles exemplifies the best fusion of scholarship and timeless musicality.

The tuneful Sinfonia introduces Acis and Galatea with aptly Arcadian grace, and the playing of BEMF’s team of peerless Händel stylists—violinist and leader Robert Mealy, violinist Cynthia Roberts, cellist Phoebe Carrai, Rob Nairn on double bass, Gonzalo X. Ruiz playing solo oboe and recorder, oboist and recorder soloist Kathryn Montoya, bassoonist Dominic Teresi, harpsichordist Avi Stein, and musical directors Paul O’Dette on archlute and Stephen Stubbs on Baroque guitar and theorbo—sets the stage for a performance in which Händel’s music sounds newly-minted. Each of the musicians is an undoubted virtuoso, but the most remarkable aspect of their playing is the skill with which they furnish precisely the magnitude of sound that each number requires. As at Cannons in 1718, the vocal soloists also serve as the choristers, and the integration of their voices in the opening chorus, ‘O the Pleasure of the Plains,’ is superb. They seem an altogether different ensemble in the anguished pronouncements of ‘Wretched Lovers! Fate has past this sad decree, no joy shall last’ and ‘Mourn, all ye Muses, weep, all ye Swains.’ Comforting the despondent Galatea and then entreating her, ‘Galatea, dry thy Tears,’ their sound is again transformed, now glowing with melodious optimism. Under O’Dette’s and Stubbs’s direction, the decorous drama plays out plaintively, every embellishment enacted by singers and instrumentalists displaying absolute refinement.

Blame for the principal and, fundamentally, only flaw in the performance of Acis and Galatea on cpo’s discs must be laid at Händel’s feet. It is unpardonable that the shepherd Coridon has so little to do when he is given life by the hypnotic tones of tenor Zachary Wilder. His performance of Coridon’s air ‘Would you gain the tender Creature’ is exquisite, his timbre suiting the music as though Händel composed the piece with it in mind. The Polyphemus who could ignore this Coridon’s earnest effort at calming his ire must be audiologically as well as visually limited. In the history of recorded opera, there are moments that can never be replicated or forgotten: Pagliughi’s ‘Regnava nel silenzio,’ Flagstad’s Liebestod, Callas’s ‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,’ Mödl’s Todesverkündigung, Björling’s ‘Donna non vidi mai.’ To these must be added Wilder’s ‘Would you gain the tender Creature.’ A performance such as this makes the dearth of memorable Isoldes and Toscas far easier to bear.

Equally effective is tenor Jason McStoots’s sweetly-vocalized portrayal of Acis’s confidant and fellow shepherd Damon. The sincerity that shapes his singing of the recitative ‘Stay, shepherd, stay!’ is mirrored in the confidence of his vocalism, and his performance of the air ‘Shepherd, what are thou pursuing?’ exudes concern for the course upon which Acis has set himself. Still more affecting is McStoots’s voicing of the air ‘Consider, fond Shepherd.’ His technique equal to every difficulty of his part, McStoot depicts an urbane but gratifyingly frank Damon. Like Wilder’s, his voice sounds tailor-made for the music.

Bass-baritone Douglas Williams creates within the boundaries of Händel’s music a multi-dimensional Polyphemus who manages to be strangely sympathetic even when crushing shepherds under boulders. His strapping tones, stronger at the top than at the bottom of his character’s range, give the one-eyed giant an atypical depth, this Polyphemus unapologetically wearing the scars of a continually-scorned lover. Williams surges through the accompanied recitative ‘I rage, I melt, I burn’ with the unstoppable force of an avalanche, but his is the voice of a creature consumed by love, not that of a schoolyard bully. Not unlike Jean-Philippe Rameau’s merciless mocking of the title character’s would-be lovemaking in his Platée, there is an unmistakable vein of humor in the famous air ‘O ruddier than the Cherry!’ Williams’s Polyphemus sounds as though he truly knows no other way of wooing than ham-fisted blustering, but he blusters most musically, jigging through the divisions rather than shouting them into submission as many of his fellow cyclopses have done. In the recitative with Galatea, the object of his unsubtle desire, he phrases ‘Whither, Fairest, art thou running’ with a concerted effort at artless charm, but his frustration erupts anew in his air ‘Cease to Beauty to be suing.’ In the fateful trio with Galatea and Acis, Williams’s voice throbs with fury that does not disguise accents of sorrow: no mindless brute, he knows on some level, like Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana when she reveals Turiddu’s affair with Lola to Alfio, that his actions have neutralized his rival but also deprived him of any possibility of winning his beloved’s affection. Williams makes Polyphemus a wounded beast whose shortcomings are all too human but whose voice is as dangerous a weapon as the stone with which he seals his fate.

By contrast, soprano Teresa Wakim’s Galatea is the personification of delicate femininity. The gleaming tone with which she illuminates the words in the accompanied recitative ‘Ye verdant Plains and woody Mountains’ is followed by an outpouring of concentrated bel canto in the air ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling Quire!’ Both the recitative ‘Oh, did’st thou know the Pains of absent Love’ and the air ‘As when the Dove’ are sung with rapt probity, and the moonstruck fervor of her delivery of Galatea’s words in the duet ‘Happy We!’ is both touching and tasteful. The soprano articulates the recitative ‘Cease, o Cease, thou gentle youth’ poignantly. Her terror in the trio with Acis and Polyphemus is as gripping as her grief in ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan’ and ‘’Tis done’ is heartbreaking. Wakim ends the masque with a rapturous performance of the air ‘Heart, the Seat of soft Delight,’ her voice soaring with renewed ardor. How could any Acis and Polyphemus not lose their hearts to this Galatea?

There is a sort of clairvoyance at the core of tenor Aaron Sheehan’s portrayal of Acis that ushers the listener into the character’s very private, endearingly uncomplicated world from the first golden notes of the singer’s performance of the air ‘Where shall I seek the charming Fair?’ Clairvoyance is not the correct term, really, for Sheehan’s conveyance of Acis’s introverted but all-consuming passion transcends sensory perception. Sheehan’s lean, agile voice moves gorgeously through the airs ‘Lo, here my Love, turn, Galatea, hither turn thy Eyes’ and ‘Love in her Eyes sits playing,’ his handling of fiorature as natural as his eloquent diction. He joins Wakim in the duet ‘Happy We!’ with beaming devotion. The titanium core of Sheehan’s voice lends his singing of the recitative ‘His hideous Love provokes my rage’ and air ‘Love sounds th’Alarm and Fear is a-flying!’ smoldering masculinity, and he fights fearlessly in the trio ‘The Flocks shall leave the Mountains’ for the love that has changed Acis’s life. Death is as innate a part of opera as of life, but few operatic deaths are as profoundly stirring as Sheehan makes Acis’s demise in the accompanied recitative ‘Help, Galatea, help, ye Parent Gods!’ The singer’s quiet, almost serene realization of the extinguishing of Acis’s life brings to mind the bittersweet death of Mr. Barkis in David Copperfield, in which Dickens wrote that, ‘it being low water,’ the noble-hearted, seafaring fellow ‘went out with the tide.’ His plangent vocalism having engendered a captivating character, Sheehan is an Acis whose destiny reaches the loftiest heights of tragedy.

Anyone approaching this recording of Acis and Galatea expecting Siegmund, Sieglinde, and Hunding speaking the language of Giulio Cesare and Rodelinda is destined for self-imposed disappointment. After his immigration to London, when his life became fodder for the diary-keeping gossips of English society, Händel may well have lacked the virtues of carefully-honed diplomacy and tactfulness, but his music suggests that his thorny manner defended a sensitive spirit. The cantata ‘Sarei troppo felice’ and the 1718 Cannons incarnation of Acis and Galatea are not the works of a curmudgeon, no matter how fiercely their creator guarded his most personal emotions. There is no hiding the tenderheartedness of the man who composed music that inspires performances like this ‘Sarei troppo felice’ and Acis and Galatea.