Thursday, July 12, 2012

Barrocade closes its 2011-2012 concert season with Handel's "Acis and Galatea"

Bass baritone Oded Reich as Polypheme

The Barrocade Ensemble, joined by Barrocade Vocale, wound up the 2011-2012 concert season with three performances of G.F.Händel’s “Acis and Galatea”, produced and conducted by Philip Picket (UK). Soloists were local artists - soprano Revital Raviv, bass-baritone Oded Reich and tenors Doron Florentin and Eliav Lavie – and German tenor Robert Sellier. This writer was present at the performance in the auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art July 7th 2012.

Born 1950 in London, Philip Pickett started out as a trumpeter, consequently becoming a renowned recorder player, going on to establish the “New London Consort” and “Musicians of the Globe”. Today he is considered one of the leading international conductors of period- and later performance, touring and recording widely. Combining informed early music practice with a degree of freedom, Pickett’s performances tend to be colorful in instrumentation and ornamentation, flexible, lively and at times improvisatory, yet never losing sight of the vocal- and instrumental style of the period.

Barrocade, the Israeli Baroque Collective (musical director Amit Tiefenbrunn), was formed in 2007 by a number of young Israeli early music specialists, most of them freshly back in Israel from the early music conservatories of Europe. Today the ensemble performs widely in Israel, records and tours, sometimes working with guest conductors, but frequently without a conductor; all members have a say in performance decisions. Focusing much on Baroque music, Barrocade members are, however, inspired by new and exciting projects that take them into other styles of music.

G.F.Händel’s (1685-1759) “Acis and Galatea” (1718) was among the first and most successful extended secular music dramas in the English language, drawing on the Renaissance masque tradition in England that had sprung back to life in the early 18th century, this possibly being a reaction to the increasing popularity of Italian opera. Händel was now court composer to the Earl of Carnavon (who became Duke of Chandos) at Cannons, the aristocrat’s opulent residence just north of London, where a resident ensemble of instrumentalists and singers was at hand, forming an environment giving the composer the possibility to experiment. In “Acis and Galatea”, tying in with the English aristocracy’s need to escape from the staid constraints of British society by way of addressing the laissez-faire morals of the idyllic countryside, the nymphs and shepherds pass from childhood to adulthood, and, as in real life, with much confusion. (The 1718 masque was actually Händel’s second setting of the myth, the first titled “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo”, which he composed in Naples in 1708, probably for a royal wedding.) The driving force behind the London “Acis and Galatea” was literary: England’s post-Renaissance literati had a predilection for the classical idyll typified in the works of Theocritus , Longus and Ovid. Händel used a libretto pieced together by John Dryden, Alexander Pope and John Gay (of “Beggar’s Opera” fame) in which unblemished nature forms the background for naïve love that becomes tinged by the element of tragedy. Ensuring that the English audiences of the time would not become too obsessed only with the idyllic nature of the story, Händel adopted the idea of the chorus from Greek tragedy to involve them emotionally. This is a masterfully expressive tool. The five members of Barrocade Vocale constituted the “chorus”.

Händel was the right composer to further the pastoral masque genre in England, infusing into it the musical style and order he had acquired in Italy – as in the clear delineation between the role of recitative and aria. In fact, “Acis and Galatea” appealed so greatly to the public that it was frequently plagiarized, with much money being made from crudely altered versions; in his later “patched up” versions, the composer never really managed to restore the opera to its original form. It was not till the mid-20th century that the original Cannons version of the performing score of “Acis and Galatea” was resurrected.

Acis and Damon are close. Acis and Galatea are in love. Polypheme, the one-eyed monster, has had his youth taken from him by war, but wants to turn back the wheel of time. He fancies Galatea, but she is not to be his. He destroys Acis, and is, himself, in turn destroyed. Arcadia is in turmoil, but, by the end of the opera, all returns to eternity; the dead Acis is turned into an eternal fountain. This solution corresponds with ideal of the cyclic order in nature.

The opera opens with a brilliant Italian-style Sinfonia, its rhythmic course punctuated by pastoral woodwinds (oboe). The ensuing deceptive cadence, shaking the listener out of his complacent enjoyment of the Arcadian countryside, warns us that the apparent love triangle (or is it a quartet?) spells trouble. Maestro Pickett had the Barrocade players seated at one side of the stage. He, himself, conducted without a score; and what a joy it was to see singers unencumbered by scores! Pickett’s production means movement! All singers, mostly barefooted (as would be such bucolic characters) used the whole space of the auditorium. A startling theatrical moment was Polypheme’s (Oded Reich) first entrance: carrying a massive stake, he lumbers awkwardly down the steps from the top of the auditorium, a large eye painted on the centre of his forehead. At a later stage, representing Acis’ funeral scene, members of Barrocade Vocale descend the steps in a perfectly coordinated funeral procession. And the stage set? In actuality, there was none, but Pickett had the singers looking upwards and outwards, creating the scenery of trees, birds, blue skies and babbling brooks in the minds of the audience! Add to these effects the many textual allusions to nature and its direct association with the characters, and the scene is complete. Thus, the sounds of nature arouse Galatea’s fears:
‘Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!
Your thrilling strains
Awake my pains,
And kindle fierce desire….’

I had the feeling Pickett had extended- and painted the space of the auditorium. And, to keep us in the pastoral mode, members of Barrocade Vocale cavorted and ran about with the carefree joy and childish naïveté of shepherds and swains, their facial expressions never frozen. Here was a semi-staged Baroque opera bristling with the sense of freedom and with pizzazz.

Enter Galatea (Revital Raviv):
‘Ye verdant plains and woody mountains,
Purling streams and bubbling fountains,
Ye painted glories of the field,
Vain are the pleasures which ye yield;
Too thin the shadow of the grove,
Too faint the gales, to cool my love.’
Raviv fits into the role of Galatea so naturally, her silvery, unforced- and sculpted singing pleasing; her feminine sweetness, her pining, her joy, her mourning and her final noble acceptance of the situation are convincing and come across musically. She has the audience siding with her all the way. Raviv, who possesses a fine command of British English, has done much performing in England under Pickett’s direction.

Opera singer Robert Sellier (b. 1979, Germany) is equally at home singing Lieder as he is performing early music, Mozart, Schubert and contemporary works, having premiered several of the latter. Recording for the OehmsClassics and ORF labels, Sellier is also a member of the soloists’ ensemble of the Staatstheater am Gärtnerplatz (Munich). His tone is sweet and lyrical, his manner confident, open and forthright. Infatuated with Galatea, he is a possessive Acis, fired with energy, energetically moving with the plot.
‘Love sounds th’alarm,
And fear is a-flying
When beauty’s the prize,
What mortal fears dying?...’

Barrocade Vocale, an ensemble established by Barrocade harpsichordist Yizhar Karshon and soprano Yeela Avital in 2011, specializes in the performance of Renaissance- and Baroque music. The five singers taking part –Yeela Avital, alto Ella Wilhelm, tenors Doron Florentin and Eliav Lavie, and bass Joel Sivan – represented the singing of the kind of chorus used in Händel’s original performance of “Acis and Galatea”. The chorus pieces, their narrative laden with information, guide the listener’s moods and sympathies, initially setting the scene:
…’For us the zephyr blows,
For us distills the dew,
For us unfolds the rose,
And flow’rs display their hue…’
Striking a fine balance between blend and individual vocal color, the five singers paint landscapes, report on the state of the lovers’ relationship, warn of Polypheme’s arrival, sing the dirge over Acis’ death and, in the final chorus, they comfort the mourning Galatea in the fact that ‘Acis now a god appears’. Two of the BV members also performed solo roles, those of the two newer characters added to the story. The role of Damon was sung by Doron Florentin. Attempting to advise and caution Acis with some good, old-fashioned home truths, the role, representing the element of rationale, was handled with tenderness, with Florentin’s mellifluous, sturdy timbre, inspiring confidence. The running bass line in “Shepherd, what art thou pursuing”, however, emphasizes the fact that Damon is unable to convince Acis, too blind with love, to keep up with his shepherd’s duties. Advising Polypheme, we heard Eliav Lavie as Coridon, his empathic efforts at softening the monster’s jealous heart falling on deaf ears. His extending of the final dissonance of the aria, with the audience starting to wonder when or whether the solution would appear, was a comical effect…perhaps representing his patience.

Bass baritone Oded is a Polypheme to be reckoned with. From the moment he appears on the scene, his brutish gait and deportment smacking of evil and lust, we are drawn into the complexity of his dark soul and the sheer absurdity of the character. Reich takes on the role of the larger-than-life softie with great relish, his large, rich and stable voice enveloping the auditorium. Händel’s wit is paramount when, following the monster’s demand of ‘a hundred reeds of decent growth to make a pipe for’ his ‘capacious mouth’, he scores the sopranino recorder (Shai Kribus) to accompany “O ruddier than the cherry”, the giant’s attempt at wooing Galatea. Raviv, Sellier and Reich build up the story in a strangely contrasted manner to its dramatic climax in “The flocks shall leave the mountains”, wherein the naïve lovers describe their love within the richness of the pastoral setting, with Reich’s outbursts of frustration and murderous intentions punctuating the movement. In recent years, Oded Reich has proved himself to be a superb performer of sacred music. Audiences are now enjoying his fast-developing stage presence in the very different genres of secular cantatas and opera.

Much of the evening’s excellence was also due to Barrocade’s fine instrumentalists, who performed with vivid alacrity, their phrasing suave. Pickett and orchestra move hand-in-glove with the singers, supporting gestures and adding extra layers of meaning to the plot. Courtly dances and wonderful instrumental duets and trios thread their way through arias, offering listeners the chance to hear some of Barrocade’s players individually: in Galatea’s aria “As when the dove Laments her love”, Raviv’s amorous utterences “billing, cooing, panting, wooing” are answered by violins; Kribus, on the oboe, echoes and mirrors Damon in “Consider, fond shepherd”; Galatea’s final aria “Heart, the seat of soft delight” is cushioned in the lush texture of strings and two alto recorders.

Philip Pickett’s direction of “Acis and Galatea” highlighted both the excellence of the opera’s verbal text and Händel’s musical setting of it. Pickett’s treatment of both, enhanced by his uniquely dynamic, flowing direction produced a performance of the highest quality.

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