Gap ads of recent vintage seem to have been among the inspirations for Mark Lamos’ playful and poignant new production of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” at City Opera. Everyone’s in khaki for this mythical tale of a sea nymph and a shepherd whose romance is spoiled by the jealousy of a giant.
The first act is static even for a Handel opera: Its dramatic content can be summed up in two words from one of the choruses: “Happy we!” On set designer Paul Steinberg’s glittering blue dune, under glittering blue and green trees, nymphs in sundresses and their swains in rolled-up khakis and sailor tops celebrate their own idyllic lives as well as the love between Christine Brandes’ Galatea and William Burden’s Acis. The lovers also celebrate it themselves, with exuberant physicality; given the youthfulness and attractiveness of this pair — not by any means to be taken for granted on opera stages — the romance is more dramatically plausible than is often the case.
If the first act threatens to evaporate in a bland miasma of sweetness, things take a sudden turn toward darkness at the beginning of act two. “Wretched lovers” are the first two words of the first chorus, and the arrival of the brutishly jealous Polyphemus (Dean Elzinga), whose massive stature is cleverly represented in a scenic coup, signals the end of the party. In jealous spite, he hurls a rock at Acis, killing him. Galatea, deep in mourning, uses her powers to grant her lover immortality in the form of a flowing stream.
It’s a modest tale, and Lamos’ production accentuates its simplicity. Changes in mood are effected by the changing hues of Robert Wierzel’s lighting as it flows across the set’s curved, corrugated backdrop. It’s mostly left to the performers to animate the stage, and this they do with ardent and lovely singing. Brandes’ pure, bright soprano is the shining highlight of the production. She sang with utmost care for clarity of thought and feeling; not a word of the English libretto was lost.
She was well matched by Burden, whose tenor sounded expressive and attractive even when he was performing the frolicsome bits of business provided by Lamos to liven up the first act (giving Galatea a brief piggyback ride, for instance). The fatal end to their romance, mourned in hushed, halting phrases by the chorus, was genuinely heartbreaking.
Bass-baritone Elzinga made a fine debut as Polyphemus, even if the coloratura in his aria “O ruddier than the cherry” seemed a bit forced. Tenor John Tessier, also debuting, gracefully sang the role of Damon, confidant to both shepherds and giants, it seems. Jane Glover’s limpid conducting supported the singers and chorus effectively.