In his heyday in England, Handel was a popular composer, and his "Acis and Galatea" was subtitled "A Pastoral Entertainment" - one supposes, the 18th-century equivalent of an off-Broadway musical.
The tonal colorations in "Acis" well express its mythical plot, told in John Gay's arch verses. It tells of the chaste love between Prince Acis and his water nymph, and the intervention of the one-eyed monster, Polyphemus (otherwise mythically known as Cyclops), whose jealous fury drove him to kill Acis. Commentary of the shepherd Damon balances out this delightful assortment of arias, duets and choruses."Acis and Galatea" was popular with Handel's audience; composed in 1718, it was indeed the most frequently revived of all his works during his lifetime. Its form, the masque, usually incorporated both singing and dancing, and much of this music cries out for choreographic treatment.
Somary's realization of "Acis" is in accordance with Handel's exact instructions: five singers (a male alto is added), two each of violins, oboes, recorders and violoncellos, and harpsichord. At first it sounds a little hollow, as one's corrupted ears miss those resonances that less-than-pure arrangers have been inclined to add to such music over the years. Especially one misses the anchor of the string bass, a frequent addition.
But as you listen, the pastel delicacy of the work becomes apparent in the skeletal orchestration; and the harshness of small dissonances adds dramatic interest to this crystal clear, fresh and interesting work.
There is considerable variety in its arias, mostly da capo, punctuated by lively recitatives. The commentary choruses are charming, especially the duet of the lovers, supported by the other voices in "Happy We," and the ensemble's conciliatory philosophizing with Galatea after her lover's death.
Into this pretty scene, John Ostendorf as Polyphemus inserts a russet-red note of dissent, with his possessive and possessed rages. Ostendorf's big bass is beautifully focused, his clear diction and coloratura facility never better displayed, and "O Ruddier Than the Cherry," long a bass standby, receives a bouncing, exhilarating treatment.
There are some rather forward-looking examples of dramatic writing for the voice - notably as Polyphemus quite chillingly intones "torture, fury, rage, despair" in the background, as the lovers celebrate their idyllic love; whereupon, the monster rears back and kills the ideal Acis, in a few short and effective chords.
Polyphemus is arguably a more interesting character than the cardboard Acis - a fact that did not escape the nymphs Galatea and Doris of Greek mythology. Both were reportedly somewhat fascinated by the Cyclops, noting he was the favored son of Poseidon the sea god.
"Just let me tell you, Doris, there's something very manly about him," said Galatea in an old play. "Of course it's true he's got only one eye, but he sees as well with it as if he had two." Scoffing at this opinion (though she secretly likes him a little herself), Doris comments, "Anyway, you won't have to cook for him. He can make a very good meal off a traveler, I understand."
Other familiar arias in this somewhat archaic bit of Handelia are "Love in Her Eyes Sits Playing" for Acis, sung by tenor Grayson Hirst at his stylish best, and "As When the Dove" for Galatea, to whom the always-welcome Julianne Baird brings impeccable technique and pretty rounded tone. The shepherd Damon, who has almost as much to do as Acis, is sung with sturdy vocalism and technical elan by tenor Stephen Oosting, and a male alto (Jeffrey Dooley) fills out the ensembles.