Haymarket Opera makes eloquent debut with Handel

Sat Sep 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Angela Young Smucker (left) and Josefien Stoppelenburg star in Haymarket Opera Company’s production of Handel’s “Aci, Galataea e Polifemo.” Photo: Wendy Benner

A local troupe devoted to 17th- and 18th -century opera that uses instruments, vocal techniques and staging practices appropriate to the period—it’s a niche on Chicago’s musical scene that has long needed to be filled.

Judging from the eloquent production of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo unveiled this weekend by the brand new Haymarket Opera Company, the wait may be over.

Starting an opera company is a lunatic adventure in the best of economic times. Starting one in today’s rotten economy qualifies as sheer madness. But in less than a year, Craig Trompeter, a respected Chicago-based cellist and viola da gamba player, has managed to pull together a group of skilled musicians and raise enough money to launch the Haymarket Opera Company’s inaugural season. Their financial resources may be limited, but Friday’s performance in the relaxed, intimate Mayne Stage on Chicago’s Far North Side revealed a sophisticated vision of Baroque opera’s possibilities.

Handel loved the ancient story of the sea nymph Galatea, her lover, the noble Aci, and the evil sea monster Polifemo, who wants Galatea for himself. He set it three times, but Haymarket chose to present the first version, a dramatic cantata composed in 1708, rather than the more familiar opera titled Acis and Galatea written a decade later.

The company’s singers—soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg as Aci, mezzo-soprano Angela Young Smucker as Galatea and bass Benjamin LeClair as Polifemo—brought radiant voices and deeply felt characterization to their roles. They created a world of refined understatement, each gesture carefully crafted yet freighted with meaning. The artists drew one irresistibly into their dreamy universe, a realm in which melancholy lovers bend tenderly toward each other and the raised hand of an aristocratic beauty can fend off a lustful monster.

Handel’s long, sustained vocal lines and intricate ornamentation held no terrors for any of the singers. The women’s voices had a mellow edge that made for a creamy blend in the cantata’s rare duets. LeClair’s Polifemo was surprisingly touching. Looking like a ragged, aged seafarer, he never resorted to crude bluster. His dark, rich baritone was chilling as he plotted against the lovers.  But it also turned profoundly sad as he contemplated his unrequited love. The production was sung in Italian with English supertitles.

In her program notes, stage director Ellen Hargis discussed the stylized gestures and vocal ornamentation that create Baroque opera’s distinctive, idealized universe. Hargis, a gifted Baroque singer and co-director of Chicago’s Newberry Consort, knows that world intimately, and Haymarket Opera’s singers and small, colorful orchestra brought it to luminous life. Meriem Bahri’s simple-lined period costumes and John Wilson’s backdrop of a peaceful sea added to the evocative atmosphere. 

The house was full for Friday night’s debut performance, and the audience seemed delighted with what they saw. With luck, they—and the richly gifted Haymarket Opera Company—will be back for more.

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse. The company will be back in February with Charpentier’s The Descent of Orpheus into the Underworld.  haymarketopera.org

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Haymarket Opera makes eloquent debut with Handel”

  1. Posted Sep 10, 2011 at 12:51 pm by David Douglass

    The fact that this was a wonderful production is made even more amazing by the reality of this new company’s startup budget. It is a testament to the hard work, sacrifice, and experience of those involved. I pray the Chicago arts community will help the Haymarket Opera Company to grow and thrive, so we can all enjoy the beauty and emotion of historically informed Baroque opera.

  2. Posted Sep 12, 2011 at 8:31 pm by Richard Boyum

    I attended the Saturday night performance of Aci, Galatea e Polifemo given by the new Haymarket company. It was a wondefully sung piece with great strength and nuance by the orchestra in a delightful cabaret setting. But the baroque hand gestures drove me mad. I just could not get used to them. If something is so distracting to a contemporary audience (me) then why use it? I live my life by the maxim, “Just because you can teach an elephant to dance, doesn’t mean you should.” Oh, did I yearn for the bees in the Berlin Nabucco or the rats in the Bayreuth Lohengrin. Those productions are equally as informed as the hand gesture performance.

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