Recast opera pleases with greatest of ease

Critic's Corner//Music

Music column

January 23, 2007|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,sun music critic

And you thought baroque opera was dusty and boring.

I'm not sure Handel would recognize his charming little Acis and Galatea as manifested these days at the Theatre Project. But he'd probably be entertained, as a sold-out crowd clearly was Saturday night, by an inventive, under-the-big-top staging of the work by American Opera Theater.

This Baltimore-based ensemble, formerly known as Ignoti Dei Opera, has a strong track record of dusting off pieces from long ago and giving them fresh perspectives. Director Timothy Nelson's spin on Acis and Galatea turns a mythological tale of a nymph, a shepherd and a monster into a non-stop circus, with aerial gyrations, mime and clowning.

The thoroughness of Nelson's concept, and the uncanny ability of his eager cast to carry out any manner of stage business, certainly make for an engaging theatrical experience. Let's face it - you don't often get to see and hear a soprano deliver an aria while suspended on long strands of red cloth, singing a portion of the music while hanging upside down and spinning slowly around.

How much of this has to do with Acis and Galatea is questionable. The libretto may be very much of its time, highly poetic stuff meant as diverting, upper-class entertainment, but it's hardly a laugh riot (not with the concluding death of Acis, turned by Galatea into a stream).

Nelson's approach treats virtually everything as silly, turning the opera into a story told by the entertainers while they do their antics. The result can be a little breathless and distracting - many of the words get lost amid all the diversions. But, taken on its own terms, the production is an impressive, ultimately winning achievement.

Nothing has been overlooked in the process of putting this Barnum & Bailey spin on Acis and Galatea. The evocative look of the production - a collaboration of Nelson and Kel Millionie - adds to the fun. And the singers inhabit their newly defined roles so persuasively that it's hard to believe they haven't been in that milieu for years.

Rebecca Duren, as Galatea (alias Trapeze Girl), takes to aerial stunts effortlessly. She also sings brightly and surely, whether above ground or on terra firma. Aaron Sheehan, supple of frame and voice, is a natural as Acis (or the Mime). The tenor's account of "Love in Her Eyes Sits Playing," one of Handel's most beguiling melodies, is especially sensitive.

Sumner Thompson offers a vivid voice, and physical expressiveness to match, as Polyphemus (here, the Sad Clown). Tony Boutte's Damon, the Ringmaster, is another deftly drawn portrayal, backed by stylish singing. Kristen Dubenion-Smith, as the Dancing Bear, chimes in neatly as needed.

On Saturday, the period instrument ensemble had some issues with intonation but conveyed the flavor of Handel's sublime score.

Remaining performances are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $11-$25. Call 410-752-8558.

Young artists

Among last weekend's attractions were recitals by young artists who had a Peabody Institute connection in common. I caught the first half of each event.

Ana Vidovic, a Croatian-born classical guitarist who studied at Peabody with the eminent Manuel Barrueco, has been building a successful international career since graduating in 2003. Several CDs and a DVD already document her talent, which was readily apparent Sunday afternoon when Vidovic was presented by Community Concerts at Second Presbyterian Church.

The guitarist's graceful phrasing, remarkable clarity of articulation and wealth of dynamic gradations were put to telling effect. Fernando Sor's Variations on a Theme of Mozart became a study in subtle eloquence. Vidovic elegantly conveyed the bittersweet quality of Francisco Tarrega's Recuerdos de la Alhambra, the gentle shadings of Augustin Barrios Mangore's La Catedral, and the neo-classical crispness of Federico Moreno Torroba's Sonatina.

On Friday evening, Music in the Great Hall presented a duo recital by violinists Amos Fayette and Netanel Draiblate, who took second and third prize, respectively, at the 2006 Yale Gordon/Peabody Competition. The students showed considerable promise.

Fayette offered an intense, dark-toned performance of Ysaye's unaccompanied Sonata No. 3 and, backed by pianist Clinton Adams, a vigorous account of Sarasate's Tarantella.

Draiblate, also with Adams, made a likewise impressive showing with his warm, confident phrasing in Grieg's F major Sonata.

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