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American Bach Soloists and the Enduring Charm of Acis and Galatea

January 29, 2015

American Bach Soloists

Nola Richardson & Kyle Stegall


Handel’s pastoral opera Acis and Galatea is a work of enduring popularity. Revived many times during the composer’s lifetime, the two-act musical drama remained popular after Handel’s death, in 1759. Mozart re-orchestrated it in 1788 and Mendelssohn performed it in 1828, and some say that the opera is Handel’s only stage work that has never been out of the opera repertory.

Last Sunday’s performance of Handel’s masterpiece at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in San Francisco, by the choir and orchestra of the American Bach Soloists plus a well-cast quartet of vocal soloists directed by Jeffrey Thomas, made it easy to understand why Acis and Galatea has charmed audiences for almost three centuries, and continues to do so.

[ABS] made it easy to understand why Acis and Galatea has charmed audiences for almost three centuries, and continues to do so.The story about the sea nymph Galatea, who is in love with the shepherd Acis but lusted after by the monstrous giant Polyphemus, is lovely in its simplicity, but the drama and the setting in a ‘rural prospect’ gave Handel more than enough to work with; love and passion, death and loss, wit and comedy in the secondary characters, references to cooing doves and flowing water, and a chorus that observes the drama, sets the scene, comments, and ultimately urges Galatea to use her magic powers and create a sort of happy ending.

Soprano Nola Richardson made a wonderful ABS debut as a nimble-voiced and charming Galatea. With just the right amounts of innocence, longing, and desire in her voice and presentation, she paired very well with the feather-light phrasing of tenor Kyle Stegall, who was a bright and energetic Acis, a shepherd too distracted by love to take proper care of his flock.

Soprano Nola Richardson made a wonderful ABS debut as a nimble-voiced and charming Galatea.Zachary Wilder, with his slightly darker, more muscular tenor, was Acis’ rational counterpart and fellow shepherd Damon. He was stellar in the two beautiful arias in Act II, “Would you gain the tender creature” and “Consider, fond shepherd,” as he attempts to settle the dangerous situation that arises between Acis and ‘the monster Polypheme.’

Baritone Mischa Bouvier was vocally and dramatically larger than life as the bumbling giant and murderous monstrosity that Polyphemus is. His gruesome act of crushing Acis under a stone leads to one of the baroque’s saddest musical moments, in which the chorus sings, unaccompanied, “Ah, the gentle Acis is no more,” and the members of the excellent ABS chorus, for just a moment, managed to bring time to a standstill.

Meanwhile, the ABS orchestra did excellent work as accompanying ensemble, but showed its dedication to baroque style and substance most of all when it opened the concert with a fresh rendition of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, with as soloists Elizabeth Blumenstock on violin and Judith Linsenberg and Debra Nagy on recorders.

Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, sound engineer, and radio producer. Born and raised in the Netherlands, he studied English and Musicology at the University of Nijmegen. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the Arts Editor, and Senior Classical Music & Opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a Dutch daily newspaper. In addition to writing for the Classical Voice and others, he is producer for KALW’s Open Air, a weekly radio magazine for the Bay Area performing arts. He is also a wine guy at Trader Joe’s Nob Hill. Read more about Niels at his website.