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Monday, 30 April 2012 21:39

Union Avenue Opera's 'Acis and Galatea' is a perfect fit

Written by Chuck Lavazzi
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unionavenueopera.org
unionavenueopera.org

The production of Handel’s 1739 pastoral opera “Acis and Galatea” that graced Union Avenue Opera’s stage this past weekend was pretty much a perfect fit for the company and its space.

With a small orchestra (ten pieces including harpsichord continuo), a cast of seven, and a modest set, it was pretty much what you’d expect from a company of UAOT’s size and technical capabilities.

Which was, of course, the most surprising thing about it.

Because if Union Avenue is about anything, in my experience, it’s about pushing their operatic envelope to the breaking point, be it with local premieres (“Dead Man Walking”), unusual collaborations (“Porgy and Bess” with the Black Rep), or just shows that you’d think would be too darn big for that space (last season’s “Turandot” and this season’s upcoming “Das Rheingold”). From that perspective, “Acis and Galatea” looks like an unusually safe choice.

From the perspective of what local audiences are likely to turn out for, though, it was right up there with the company’s usual gutsy decisions. Baroque opera is not, in general, a big seller. The musical conventions and presentational acting style that go with it are so far from contemporary ideas of musical theatre that they might as well be from another planet. Besides, there are only so many arias da capo most of us can listen to before our eyes start to glaze over.

It was not surprising, then, that when I attended on Sunday afternoon the house was small and apparently somewhat baffled by the entire business.

That’s a pity, because Union Avenue’s production was really quite fine. The orchestra played beautifully and the cast sang and acted in a style completely appropriate to the material. Even the set (a riot of live plants) was exactly right for a piece that began life as a one-act masque to be performed in a formal English garden. Baroque opera has limited appeal for me, but even I was able to appreciate what a completely admirable presentation this was.

The singers of “Acis and Galatea” were notable not only for the ease with which they negotiated those florid early 18th-centry vocal lines, but also for the way in which their voices matched each other and blended. Nobody was noticeably more or less powerful than anyone else. The solo quartet passage for the nymphs and shepherds at the end of “Mourn all ye muses” was especially impressive in that regard.

Those nymphs and shepherds were Elise LaBarge, Nathan Ruggles, Elizabeth Schleicher, and Philip Touchette. The principles were Juliet Petrus (Galatea), Marc Schapman (Acis), and David Dillard (the “monstrous giant” Polyphemus, made even more so by costumer Teresa Dogget’s creepy mask and wardrobe dresser Amy Ruprecht’s body makeup). Congratulations to all of them and to conductor and company artistic director Scott Schoonover and stage director Allyson Ditchey as well.

Union Avenue’s 2012 season continues June 29 through July 7 with Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (something I don’t think has been done locally in my lifetime) and Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” in a version “adapted and reduced” by British composer Jonathan Dove (whose remarkable opera “Flight” had its St. Louis premiere at Opera Theatre back in 2003). That last one will, I think, be something to see, if only to find out how they plan to get the Rhine, Nibelheim, and Valhalla on that stage.

Operas are always performed in their original languages with projected English text clearly visible from everywhere in the theatre. Performances take place at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. For more information, you may visit unionavenueopera.org.

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