Thursday, June 30, 2011

Boston Early Music Festival: Handel's Acis and Galatea

Teresa Wakim as Galatea/Lady Chandos, and Aaron Sheehan as Acis/Lord Chandos
(Below: Wakim with Douglas Williams as Polyphemus/Alexander Pope)

Handel composed the English-language masque Acis and Galatea in 1718 when he was composer in residence at Cannons, the suburban London estate of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (later Duke of Chandos, the name by which I will refer to him in the rest of this post).

That the Duke chose to patronize Handel is something of a curiosity. Handel had been invited to London as a composer of Italian opera, and during his first five years in England he devoted most of his compositional energies to opera seria: he wrote Rinaldo (1711), Il pastor fido (1712), Teseo (1713), Silla (1713), and Amadigi (1715), most of which were performed by impresario Aaron Hill's company at the Haymarket Theater.

But Italian operas, and in particular the castrati who were their stars, were not universally admired in England. A number of satirists published attacks on the form for its supposed effeminacy, decadence, foreignness, and absurdity. And when Hill's opera company reached the end of its financial tether in June 1717, Handel soon found himself at Cannons working with some of the arch-enemies of Italian opera: members of the satirical Scriblerus Club such as Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Hughes.

Pope later excoriated Italian opera (but praised Handel) in The Dunciad (1728); Gay mocked Italian opera in The Beggar's Opera (1728), whose music (including tunes taken from Handel operas) was arranged by Johann Pepusch, the Duke's musical director at Cannons; and Hughes later occasioned Samuel Johnson's famous comment that he created works "intended to oppose or exclude the Italian opera, an exotic and irrational entertainment, which has been always combated, and always has prevailed" (Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779)).

Such companions would not seem to have been entirely congenial to the cosmopolitation composer who had devoted a large share of his creative energies to Italian opera. But Handel knew the Scriblerians well—he had met them at Burlington House, the London home of his previous patron Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington—and Handel was nothing if not adaptable. All of the music he produced for the Duke had English-language texts: eleven anthems based on the Psalms, the oratorio Esther (1718) to a libretto by Pope, and Acis and Galatea, whose libretto included contributions from Gay, Pope and Hughes.

Gay was the primary collaborator with Handel on Acis, adapting the text of John Dryden's The Story of Acis, Polyphemus and Galatea (1717). Dryden's poem was a translation of an incident from Book XIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses: The sea nymph Galatea is pursued by the Cyclops Polyphemus; she herself is in love with the the handsome young shepherd Acis (who in Ovid's telling also has semi-divine origins). In a jealous rage Polyphemus kills Acis; Galatea uses her divine powers to turn Acis' blood into a fountain (in Ovid, the origin of Sicily's River Acis), and Acis himself into a river-god.

Gilbert Blin's production of Acis and Galatea for the Boston Early Music Festival was just about the most intelligent staging imaginable. It was set as though we were watching a rehearsal at Cannons, with members of the court (in eighteenth-century costumes by Anna Watkins) taking the roles. It soon becomes clear that Acis (Aaron Sheehan) is the Duke himself, with Galatea (Teresa Wakim) being his wife, Lady Chandos, Polyphemus (Douglas Williams) Alexander Pope, and Acis' fellow shepherds, Damon (Jason McStoots) and Coridon (Michael Kelly), Handel and Gay.

Blin's assignment of roles to the historical personages present at Cannons in June 1718 was anything but arbitrary. The arias of Damon/Handel are all urgings to pleasure—surely a supreme value for a composer of Italian opera. McStoots did an especially beautiful (and poignant) job with the aria "Consider, fond Shepherd,/How fleeting's the pleasure/That flatters our hope/In pursuit of the fair" (there's a too-brief excerpt in the video below). Blin staged the aria, which Damon sings to Acis/Lord Chandos ostensibly about Galatea, to indicate Handel's own yearning for the Duke. Here Blin was drawing on the scholarship of Ellen Harris (a participant in the Festival), who in Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas (Harvard University Press, 2001) posits a homoerotic subtext in the vocal chamber music Handel wrote during this period.

Polyphemus, the Cyclops, is portrayed by Alexander Pope. Polyphemus is hideous of aspect; the real-life Pope had suffered from dieases in childhood that stunted his growth and left him with severe curvature of the spine. Polyphemus nurtures a hopeless love for the beautiful Galatea, who loves Acis instead; Pope had an extravagant but apparently unrequited attachment to the married Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. When Polyphemus discovers Galatea with Acis, he explodes in rage and kills Acis to punish Galatea; when Pope felt spurned by Lady Mary, he published a savage and thinly veiled attack on her, writing that the fate of her male acquaintances was to be either "poxed by her love, or libelled by her hate." Watkins' costume for Polyphemus cleverly alludes both to the Cyclops and to Pope: he wears an eye-patch, making him one-eyed, and carries a large walking stick (later the instrument of Acis' death).

Musically the production was exquisite; Handel's vocal writing in Acis offers gorgeous aria after gorgeous aria. All of the five vocalists have wonderfully pure and pleasing voices, and their ornamentation of repeated aria verses was beautiful, intelligent, and truly enhanced the vocal line. The music looked back to Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689) and The Fairy Queen (1692) in its lovely melodies, and forward to Mozart in an extraordinary trio where Polyphemus violently interrupts a love duet between Acis and Galatea; the treble instruments play the lovers' melody, while the bass instruments play Polyphemus'. The one-to-a-part instrumental forces, led by lutenist Paul O'Dette, baroque guitarist Stephen Stubbs, and harpsichordist Avi Stein, were perhaps somewhat smaller than those the Duke had at his disposal, but the stripped-down sound made the textures of Handel's writing wonderfully clear.

Acis and Galatea was the high point of our concert-going at the Boston Early Music Festival. It was so good that afterwards we decided on impulse to stay for the delightful late-night concert of duets by Handel and Agostino Steffani which followed.

But that's a post for another time. Here's a taste of this Acis production; we can only hope that the BEMF will soon release a full-length CD or DVD recording:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Bollywood Rewatch 1: Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam

Every new love affair passes through a heady period of infatuation. You want to spend all your time with your beloved, you obsess about them when you're apart, and even their flaws and idiosyncrasies are endearing. As time passes, that early whirlwind of passion can settle into a more sober, clear-sighted, but perhaps longer-lasting admiration and affection. Sometimes, of course, seeing your love through new and perhaps more judicious eyes can prove fatal to the relationship.

So it was with some trepidation that we went back to rewatch some of the films that we first saw early on in our Bollywood viewing, including English Babu Desi Mem (1996), Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Hum Tum (2004), Bunty aur Babli (2005), and Vivah (2006). These are all films that we had liked very much on a first viewing, but for some reason had only watched once. Would these early favorites remain so after a rewatch? Not always, as it turned out.

Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (My Heart Belongs To You, 1999)
Original rating: ★★★ (strongly recommended)
Rewatch rating: ★★ (recommended with reservations)

In my first post on HDDCS in "Bollywood for the curious," I said that the movie "combines the attractions of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali's gorgeous settings, the young Aishwarya Rai's astonishing dancing (and astonishing beauty), and Ajay Devgan's understated and affecting performance as the husband." All of those virtues, along with Ismail Darbar's excellent music, are vividly exemplified in the song "Nimbooda." Vanraj (Ajay) sees Nandini (Aishwarya) for the first time as she performs at a wedding, and (as we do) finds her electrifying:

But HDDCS also, to an extent that I must have blocked out, features Salman Khan in a role that I think is meant to be carefree, playful, and flirtatious, but is mainly irritating. Salman plays Sameer, a free-spirited Italo-Indian musician who comes to study at the house of Pandit Darbar (played by Vikram Gokhale; the Pandit's name, we realized on our rewatch, is likely a tribute to the film's composer). Nandini is Pandit Darbar's daughter, and after an initial antagonism Nandini and Sameer fall in love.

In the song "Aankhon Ki Gustakhiyan," Nandini and Sameer flirt with and play lover's pranks on one another during a wedding. Bhansali imperceptibly segues into Sameer's and then Nandini's fantasies, and back to reality. (Sameer's fantasy begins about 2:10 when Nandini leaves the circle of dancers and ends at 2:40, when he burns his hand on the flames of the lamps that his fantasy Nandini had blown out; Nandini's fantasy begins about 3:20 when she is caught in the wrapping of Sameer's turban, and ends around 3:55, when she opens her eyes to see his turban being finished.) The whole sequence, with its swirling movement and color, and its depiction of story and character in song, shows that at his best Bhansali can be brilliant:

When Nandini's father finds out about this budding love affair, though, he banishes Sameer from his house, and arranges Nandini's marriage to the wealthy Vanraj. After the wedding, Vanraj quickly realizes that his wife loves another man, and—despite the profound pain it causes him—takes her to Italy to try to find Sameer.

—Spoiler alert!—

HDDCS was probably the third or fourth Bollywood movie we saw, and I was completely unprepared both for Vanraj's response to the unwelcome knowledge that Nandini loves Sameer, and for Nandini's final choice between the two men (which is utterly unlike the way an American version of the same plot would be resolved).

On a rewatch it's clear that Nandini's connection to Sameer was one of youthful infatuation, and that she has grown and changed over the intervening time. It's not just for reasons of wifely duty that she chooses Vanraj; she has come to recognize that his deep love and devotion, which she has begun to return, are a better basis for a lifelong relationship than Sameer's boyish excitability.

—End of spoiler—

Bhansali makes some major missteps, including having Sameer repeatedly talk to a rumble of thunder that is supposed to be his father in heaven. (His mother in Italy, I appreciated on our rewatch, is played by Salman's real-life mother stepmother Helen.*) To have the thunder respond to Sameer once would be an ambiguous and mildly amusing joke; to have it happen a half-dozen times or more is just silly.

So I'm sorry to say that, while we still enjoyed HDDCS the second time around, its flaws—primarily in Bhansali's conception of the role of Sameer and in Salman's hyperkinetic and over-enthusiastic performance—were much more apparent. Still, what Bhansali does well, he does really well, as in "Dholi Taro Dhol Baaje":

A word should be said here in praise of Bhansali's collaborators Shabina Khan and Neeta Lulla (costumes), Saroj Khan, Natbar Maharana and Vaibhavi Merchant (choreography), and the great playback singers such as Kavita Krishnamurthy ("Nimbooda" and "Aankhon Ki Gustakhiyan"), Karsan Sagathia ("Nimbooda"), and Kumar Sanu ("Aankhon Ki Gustakhiyan"), among others.

More Bollywood Rewatch posts to follow.

Update 10 July 2011: The Bollywood Rewatch post on Vivah is now available.

Update 3 September 2013: For the third post in this series, see Bollywood Rewatch 3: Kandukondain Kandukondain.


* See FilmiGirl's comment below.