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Performances of this early (1718) English work by George Frideric Handel are rare, as the focus here is on the soloists, and not on the rarer choral moments. The plot, such as it is, focuses on the competition between the shepherd Acis (a tenor) and the monster Polyphemus (a bass, of course) for the favors of lovely soprano Galatea, a sea-nymph. Handel had made an earlier setting of the tale a decade earlier, during his stay in Italy (Aci, Galatea e Polifemo). The eternal triangle is joined by another tenor and shepherd, Damon, who gives helpful advice on the subject of romance to both Acis and Polyphemus.
The production by Ensemble Courant of the UNC Music Department (co-directed by violinist Richard Luby and cellist Brent Wissick) was to have been staged, but lamentably two of the principal singers were unable to perform due to force of circumstances, and it seemed wise to resort to a concert version. Acis was taken by tenor Thomas Oesterling of Boston, and the part of Polyphemus by Andrew Nolen of Brooklyn, both contracted at short notice. They were joined by locals Jeanne Fischer as Galatea and Timothy Sparks as Damon.
The petite Fischer was a radiant vision, with a supple and bright soprano, and gleaming eyes. The listener could easily imagine how the rivals might be smitten by this sea-nymph. Acis, who should have been Tamino to Fischer’s Pamina, was weakly sung and interpreted by Oesterling, whose tone was more whining than nobly inquisitive in his first air (“Where shall I seek the charming fair?”), and who was noticeably straining to reach his high notes. Sparks was also not up to the demands of the Handelian writing for tenor, with a not particularly brilliant tone and a rather stolid presence.
Andrew Nolen’s Polyphemus, who appears only in the second act, was well worth waiting for. Handel gives Polyphemus one of his most memorable airs anywhere, with the monster’s deep basso paired with the altissimo tones of the sopranino recorder, and Nolen made the most of it. He was imposing in stature, and could boast a voice to match, deep, rich, beautifully produced and inflected. A show with all the characters sung at this level would be one to write home about.
On an equally high plane was the instrumental work of virtuoso Stephen Hammer, heard on oboe and the two arias with obbligato sopranino recorder. Hammer is a past-master. His compeers in Ensemble Courante played well, but the acoustics of the Memorial Hall were flattering neither to the violins nor to the continuo harpsichord; beautiful to look at, but almost impossible to hear. This space is really too large for such a small group of period instruments. Something half the size would have been more appropriate.