Friday, June 29, 2018

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra presents the first Israeli performance of Handel's "Aci, Galatea and Polifemo"

Yizhar Karshon,Shaked Bar,Claire Meghnagi (photo: Maxim Reider)

The Jerusalem Baroque Orchestra (founder and musical director: David Shemer) concluded its 29th concert season with “Beauty and the Beast”, the first Israeli performance of G.F.Handel’s cantata, or serenata a 3, “Aci, Galatea & Polifemo”. Yizhar Karshon conducted from the harpsichord. Soloists were Shaked Bar - Galatea, Claire Meghnagi - Aci and Denis Sedov - Polifemo. This writer attended the performance at the Jerusalem International YMCA on June 27th 2018.


Somewhat overshadowed by his English pastoral mini-opera written in London in 1718, the young Handel’s little-known, unstaged dramatic cantata “Aci, Galatea & Polifemo” was composed for a ducal wedding in Naples in 1708. With an Italian libretto, the musically rich “Aci” offers early hints as to Handel’s instinctive affinity for Italian opera, also highlighting the 23-year-old Handel’s fully mature style, Both Handel works are based on Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”, in which a romance between a shepherd, Acis, and a sea nymph, Galatea, is hindered by a monstrous one-eyed giant, Polyphemus. The jealous Polyphemus hurls a boulder at Acis, killing him.  Galatea has her father, the sea god Nereus, transform Acis into a stream, so that he can flow into her embrace forever.


Handel’s ravishing, ebullient score calls for three superior singers. In the trouser role of Aci (it is presumed that Handel cast Aci as a high soprano castrato) soprano Claire Meghnagi’s supple voice, her wide, easeful and accessible range and empathy with the role made for a convincing performance. One of the work’s most delightful moments was “Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta” (Here the bird flies from tree to tree), in which violin (Noam Schuss), oboe (Shai Kribus) and Meghnagi imitate and ornament to present birdsong effects:
“Here the bird from tree to tree happily flies,
Sweetly singing to distract the heart that languishes.
But it becomes a cause of sadness for me alone
Who, afflicted and alone oh Lord, cannot find peace.”


Mezzo-soprano Shaked Bar portrayed Galatea’s plaintive charms admirably, singing with much feeling, her voice natural, easeful and rich in colours. Before Aci is killed, she and Meghnagi engaged in a tender duet of ample contrasts, with Shaked Bar’s performance culminating in a heartbreaking outpouring of grief and anger on Aci’s death. The role of Polifemo, one of the most challenging of the bass repertoire, requires an almost unbelievably wide range and some enormous leaps to boot, these representing Handel’s way of evoking the monstrous nature of Polifemo. The composer must have had at his disposal a unique voice, even by early 18th-century standards!  Of a suitably towering stature, Denis Sedov, singing several of the most virtuosic sections by heart, was confrontational, powerful and intense in the role. His singing of “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori” (In darkness and horror), with its two-and-a-half octave compass, in which the giant cyclops describes a moth desperately looking for the light of an extinguished lamp, was effective and spine-chilling.


Not to be underestimated are the demands placed by the young Handel on the fine instrumental forces that were obviously available to him at the time. In his profound, detailed and inspiring reading of the score, Yizhar Karshon imbued the music with verve, eloquence and variety, making for much articulate and splendid playing on the part of the JBO instrumentalists, both in tutti and in the most delicate of pared-down scoring for the more intimate pieces, and for precise collaboration with the singers. An exciting event to see out the 2017-2018 concert season!

Denis Sedov (photo: Maxim Reider)


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