Library nerds find love in delightful revamp of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea”

Wed Jul 29, 2009 at 3:28 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson


Amy Conn and John Zuckerman in Handel’s Acis and Galatea at the Chicago Cultural Center.

There are plenty of issues to gripe about in Chicago—crime, traffic congestion, pervasive corruption, and the lofty, tax-the-unwashed-masses political philosophy on everything from dog food to parking meters. (George Harrison was a prophet with Taxman, four decades ago.)

But there’s also much to be grateful for in a municipality that supports the arts in general and classical music in particular. How many cities are there in America when in a single summer week one can hear performances of a Handel opera, a symphonic program of Finnish music, and an Elgar oratorio—all for free?

The first of this busy week’s city-sponsored musical events took place Tuesday night at the Chicago Cultural Center with Handel’s Acis and Galatea, which runs through August 3.   

Now in its eleventh season, the opera series, sponsored by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, has presented such off-the-beaten-path rarities as Poulenc’s The Breasts of Tiresias, Rossini’s Il Signor Bruschino and Bizet’s Djamileh.

Acis and Galatea is hardly terra incognita, as the one Handel stage work to maintain a hold in the repertoire during the two-century twilight of the composer’s operas. Still, even with a ceaseless flow of inspired melody in Handel’s best style, the Arcadian scenario of the tragic love between the title shepherd and nymph is a challenge to mount in our jaded, postmodern era.

Kudos to director Joanie Schultz for an inspired under-the-dome staging that manages to be gently satiric without entirely sacrificing the deeper emotions. Add a superb cast of fine young voices and idiomatic musical backing from conductor Francesco Milioto and the New Millennium Orchestra and it all adds up to a witty, delightful retooling of Acis and Galatea.


Schultz’s site-specific revamp updates the action to the 1950s when the young lovers and their friends (the chorus) are Chicago Public Library junior librarians. The bespectacled bookworms read about the mythical lovers and encourage a burgeoning romance between the contemporary, equally nerdy Acis and Galatea counterparts. The love affair is threatened by the villain Polyphemus, here a malevolent library director with his own non-information-research designs on Galatea. Not everything in the fanciful revised scenario coheres smoothly with the libretto, such as Galatea’s bringing back Acis from the dead, powers they don’t cover in library science studies.

But for the most part, the staging, artfully designed by Chelsea Warren, had several clever touches, such as the young lovers celebrating their consummation with the duet Happy we, and Poyphemus imprisoning the bound Galatea within a high stack of reference tomes.

Handel’s music remains paramount, and the cast put across this glorious score with the requisite agility and expressive poise. Amy Conn was a fine Galatea, convincingly bookish, yet letting her hair down, literally, in a nicely sung As when the dove, and rising to the challenge of the final scene with conviction and radiant tone.

Acis has less to do but John Zuckerman deftly negotiated the balance between comic irony and mock heroics. Though not always rhythmically precise in his Handel debut, the young tenor showed a vital and attractive voice in Love in her eyes sits playing and Love sounds the alarm.

Wilbur Pauley lacks the sonorous bass needed for Polyphemus but delivered a worthy, O ruddier than the cherry, handling the production’s comedy with a wry, light touch.

The evening’s finest vocalism came from Robert Boldin as Acis’s friend, Damon. The singer’s vibrant lyric tenor was a pleasure to the ears and his natural empathetic presence lifted the entire production. Boldin’s stylish and expressive rendering of Consider, fond shepherd proved the high point of the performance.

After some initial campiness in the opening scene, the chorus proved an integral and engaging part of the proceedings with lively action and well-blended ensemble singing from Susan Nelson, Scott Brunscheen, Brian Hoffman, Caitlin McKechney, and Brad Jungwirth.

Handel’s Acis and Galatea will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 3 p.m. Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center, and 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park. Admission is free.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Library nerds find love in delightful revamp of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea””

  1. Posted Jul 29, 2009 at 4:13 pm by Weisun Chin

    Enjoyed your review. Hope to catch this tomorrow or Sat. BTW, you should include the actual calendar days of events, if you are going to list them at all. That lead photo is gigantic (in file size). Took quite a while to fully load the page. Probably just an oversight when it was inserted.

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