“Resist!” could be the 21st-century motto of Handel’s serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a mythological story of steadfast love cleverly interpreted by the director Christopher Alden as a modern-day tale of bullying and manipulation. The staging, co-produced by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, Cath Brittan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and National Sawdust (and reviewed on July 13), completes its brief run this week.
Handel composed his seldom-performed serenata, based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for a ducal wedding in 1708 in Naples. (He used the same dramatic material for his his 1718 pastoral opera Acis and Galatea.) In the myth, the water nymph Galatea and the mortal shepherd Aci are in love, but their affair is threatened by the jealous one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus, who is outraged when Galatea rejects him.
Polyphemus kills his rival with a boulder; Neptune, Galatea’s father, then turns Aci into a river that flows into the sea, where he can be reunited with Galatea. The myth’s moral of fidelity seems apt for a wedding, although the grisly ending surely must have been rather a downer. But cheery entertainment wasn’t a prerequisite for baroque nuptials: after all, Monteverdi composed L’Arianna – with its heartbreaking lament by the abandoned heroine – for a royal wedding.
In this fascinating gender-fluid staging of Aci, Costanzo sang the role of Galatea and the soprano Ambur Braid portrayed Aci. Handel, whose operas feature plenty of gender-bending, would surely have approved, especially since he wrote the role of Aci for soprano and the role of Galatea for alto. The two characters were portrayed as servants, unisex in green scrubs, yellow cleaning gloves, and hair tucked behind caps. Expressions of boredom and desperation flickered across their faces as they mopped the floor during the opening love duet, Galatea wringing out a cloth with anguished vigor.
A bathroom with chandelier proved an apt modern setting for the story. Evocative digital images by the video designer Mark Grey evolved in real time, heightening the sense of drama. Before Polifemo’s arrival, the blue-and-white nautical images projected on the wall tiles morphed into myriad single eyeballs, followed by Polifemo’s name in brash, Trumpian lettering. As their threatening, bathrobe-clad master appeared, Aci and Galatea stood against the wall, heads bowed and hands clasped subserviently.
As Polifemo, the bass-baritone Davóne Tines was mesmerizing to watch: he lowered himself (fully clad) into the bathtub with such menace as to render this quotidian act of ablution truly threatening. This contemporary Polifemo assumed the droit du seigneur, sexually harassing Galatea as she bathed him. Galatea doesn’t kill herself in Handel’s serenata, but “resistance” in this staging ends in tragedy. When Galatea gazed at a razor in her hand, it seemed for a moment that she might kill her abusive employer. But she instead committed suicide, singing “Farewell, I plunge into the waves” while slipping into the bath. When Aci climbed into the bath with Galatea, images of dripping blood covered the wall.
There is plenty of gorgeous music in this serenata, some of which Handel recycled for later operas including Agrippina and Rinaldo. The trio of singers certainly did it justice. Tines displayed a remarkable vocal range in his aria “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori” (“In darkness and horror”), his mellifluous voice descending to almost unfathomable lows. Costanzo (who just signed a recording contract with Decca) sang with expressive intensity and elegant musicianship, his pianissimos breathtaking in the aria “Se m’ami, oh caro.”
Braid was theatrically and vocally compelling as Aci, her coloratura impressive in “Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta” (“Here the bird flies from tree to tree”), in which she echoes the birdsong of the violin and oboe. The gender bending became more pronounced as Ms. Braid’s androgynous look evolved to a more feminine one, her long hair flowing freely as she became more physically assertive during what seemed to be her mad scene. Polifemo represented a testosterone-driven masculinity, dragging Galatea out of the bath with a violence that seemed shockingly real.
The Ruckus Ensemble, led by Clay Zeller-Townson, provided lively, well-paced accompaniment, with Grey’s occasional electronic manipulation of the score lending an appropriately sinister timbre. When Aci is turned into a river, the electronics created a suitably fantastical effect; a recording of the three voices rendered them eerie and distorted.
At the very end, Polifemo propped Aci and Galatea next to each other against the wall. A gesture of defeat? Ovid’s story implies that bullying is fruitless: Polifemo is a loser who can’t win Galatea despite his aggression. Now if only that could be a parable for the Trump era.
Aci, Galatea e Polifemo repeats on July 19 and 20 at National Sawdust; performances are sold out. Vivien Schweitzer is a New York based writer and pianist. She was a freelance music critic for The New York Times between 2006-2016 and is now writing an introduction to opera for Basic Books, scheduled for publication in 2018.