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Opera Review:

Chicago Opera Theater’s "ACIS & GALATEA" at the Athenaeum Theatre


From the moment the curtain rises on chic bathing beauties and their fresh-faced sailors against a seafoam-green backdrop in Chicago Opera Theater’s production of George Frideric Handel’s "Acis & Galatea" at the Athenaeum Theatre, audiences get swept away on the wings of giddy theatrical invention and humbling dramatic truth. How apropos for this rarely performed 1718 opera about a capricious sea nymph named Galatea loved by the gentle shepherd Acis but clumsily pursued by the cyclops Polyphemus.
It’s a mythological romp through a brief but poetic story in Ovid’s "Metamorphoses," which ends with Polyphemus hurling an ample chunk of mountain at Acis and killing the young lover, who is then transformed into a river god. An ideal summer theatrical fantasy, "Acis & Galatea" marks COT’s season finale.

It comes to Chicago after an initial co-production between Glimmerglass Opera and New York City Opera, and features Handel scholar Nicholas Cleobury – music director of the Britten Sinfonia – conducting an exacting group of musicians on period instruments, from gamba to harpsichord.

Brian Dickie, wrapping up his first full season as general director, is helping to carry COT to a sublime new level of technical expertise and visual innovation. "Acis & Galatea," which can easily be hampered by a glorious but stiff and repetitive score (common to operas composed during the genre’s early stages of development), explodes with young passion and a cornucopia of sensual pleasure in COT’s staging directed with wit and pathos by Mark Lamos.

As Galatea, Nathalie Paulin mesmerizes by the sheer force of her clarion soprano voice that trills with titillation and lush surrender. She is beautifully paired with earnest tenor Michael Smallwood, who combines tenderness and masculine force. Their love duet in Act One is the epitome of ecstatic young love but does not downspiral into melodramatic hysteria. They caress and shiver with a gentle glow of excitement – a feat of genius considering Handel’s intense compositional formality.

Contemporary artists performing a Handel opera must rise to the challenge of conveying their characters’ motivations through extended non-verbals. Long instrumental movements between each verse force the singers to deliver entire conversations through their eyes and gestures. The COT artists prove their genuine pantomimic agility.

As Polyphemus, bass-baritone Derrick Parker unveils a complex villain who is as much a victim of injustice as Acis. He is simply too big and hulking for his world; and Parker – costumed in a fiery orange wig with a red coal miner’s light on his forehead -- captures the cyclops’ well-meaning but wobbly wooing tactics and confused dejection. His anguish and misguided hope are strikingly conveyed in his touching comic duet with the messenger Damon (intelligently played as a nerdy tour guide by soprano Jackalyn Short).

The two-hour opera plays out on Paul Steinberg’s aquatic- playground set complete with chaise lounges and beach balls, a swing and a gargantuan statue of a reclining Cupid. When the giant Polyphemus descends in a wide elevator-like contraption, he is framed by the same scenery, only on a smaller scale – a brilliantly self-satiric optical illusion. Robert Wierzel’s sunny bluish lighting evokes a Greek isle; and Constance Hoffman’s casual and crisp white beachwear (with lovely turbans for the nymphs) continues the rapturous fun-in-the-sun motif.

COT’s production of "Acis & Galatea" transforms a potentially stilted opera into an artfully crafted portrait of burning sensuality.•

Performances of "Acis & Galatea" continue on June 14 and June 16 at 7:30 p.m. at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $27-$56. Call 312-704-8414.

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