Haymarket Opera’s Handel season hits its virtual stride with “Apollo e Dafne”

Sat Mar 06, 2021 at 3:01 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ryan de Ryke sings the role of Apollo in Haymarket Opera’s streaming performance of Handel’s Apollo e Dafne. Photo: Anna Cillan

We are all tired of experiencing opera by sitting in front of a computer—or with iPad on lap—and anxious to get back into a theater for the real thing. Fortunately, the return of live opera performances is looking like a distinct possibility on the horizon—most likely this fall. 

The realization that the past year-plus shutdown of the performing arts may be coming to an end over the next few months somehow makes one even more appreciative of the artistic spunk and game creativity shown by so many arts organizations in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Among those hardy ensembles is Haymarket Opera. Chicago’s Baroque opera company had scheduled an all-Handel season to celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2020-21. Rather than let the coronavirus spoil its plans, artistic director Craig Trompeter and interim general director Chase Hopkins have managed to keep Haymarket’s season intact by filming its Handel operas for online streaming. Haymarket opened its virtual season in October with Acis and Galatea and on Saturday night offered another intimate work on mythic themes with Apollo e Dafne.

An early, infrequently heard secular cantata, Apollo e Dafne was written by Handel at age 25. The Ovid-inspired scenario essentially comes down to: amorous Greek god meets reluctant virginal nymph; god tries to seduce nymph; god loses nymph; nymph turns into tree. 

In addition to presenting multiple contemporary trigger warnings, the slender scenario offers decidedly thin gruel dramatically. Yet, as always, Handel manages to cram an impressive amount of first-rate music into this 45-minute work. Indeed, the cantata makes a road marker of sorts for the scores of brilliant operas to come from his pen over the ensuing decades.

Like their first filmed effort last fall, Haymarket’s formal-dress studio performance is superbly done, with sleek visuals and superb sound. (Hopkins was creative producer, with the performance filmed by Garry Grasinski against eye-catching painted backdrops by company design regular Zuleyka V. Benitez.)

This outstanding Handel performance benefits immeasurably by having two Haymarket stalwarts in the cast.

Ryan de Ryke and Erica Schuller won acclaim in Haymarket’s 2013 staging of Telemann’s comedy Pimpinone (encored in 2019). In this more intimate and serious work, the duo proved just as inspired.

Handel’s Apollo is an unpleasant creature but de Ryke’s engaging stage presence and ingratiating vocalism made the predatory god almost likable. A baritone, de Ryke sounded mostly comfortable in this bass role’s demands. He brought a lilting swing to Apollo’s boastful opening aria, surprised awe at Dafne’s beauty, and was convincing in Apollo’s lovelorn entreaties—alternately threatening (“Yield to love or you will feel my force”) and oleaginous (“Be calm now, my dear one”). De Ryke plumbed a striking degree of expressive depth in the closing aria, where the repentant Apollo promises the arborized Dafne that he will water her leaves with his tears forever.

Erica Schuller as Dafne in Haymarket Opera’s Apollo e Dafne. Photo: Anna Cillan

Schuller’s charming stage—or studio—presence made the god’s romantic obsession seem wholly understandable. The role of Dafne is smaller and ends unceremoniously when the nymph runs offstage in flight from Apollo. But Schuller’s bright soprano and clear, flexible vocalism made the most of her solo opportunities as well, especially her touching melancholy in “As in gentle heaven.” Even socially distanced in a studio, she made vivid Dafne’s firm rejection of Apollo’s advances in their duetted moments. (Apollo: “Always will I adore you!” Dafne: “Always will I abhor you!”).

There was clearly a desire to fill up the short performance into an hour-long evening and the University of Chicago’s Robert L. Kendrick provided informed historical background in his seven-minute introduction. (The same information was also available in his excellent online program note.) There were also two welcome introductions by general director Hopkins, though one probably would have been enough.

Leading the orchestra from the cello, Trompeter directed a performance of verve, buoyancy and lyrical warmth. Handel’s Overture for this work is lost so the curtain-raiser from the composer’s contemporaneous Agrippina did nicely. Anne Bach’s fluent and graceful oboe playing highlighted the Overture and indeed the entire evening, with comparably fine contributions from her orchestral colleagues. 

Balances seemed largely ideal with strings tangy yet warm and woodwinds bright and clear. Technically, both voices and instruments were well captured, apart from the final section where the strings seemed to suddenly lose presence in the mix.

The Apollo e Dafne stream will be available through March 14. haymarketopera.org

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