Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Gender-Bending Baroque in Brooklyn

Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708)
National Sawdust
July 12, 2017

Intransigent lovers up against steep odds and a domineering employer
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
Going into director Christopher Alden’s take on Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo at National Sawdust, I knew we were in for some kind of theatrical treat. He is the kind of director who always rises to the occasion. He didn’t disappoint. I found myself caught up and transported by his vision.

The story of Aci and Galatea’s frustrated love is close to my heart. Ovid’s telling of the story toward the end of the Metamorphoses is a full of his characteristic humor and irreverent genius. Written during a period in which staged narrative works were anathema, Handel’s early Italian oratorio pushes the genre to the limit. It is packed with highly dramatic narrative content that by its very nature transcends the park-and-bark format of a mere courtly recital and Alden’s staging brought it all forcefully to life.

Veering away from the bucolic setting of the original myth where nymphs and shepherds frolic along the wooded coasts of Sicily, Handel’s librettist Nicola Giuvo transposes the story to a more regal milieu. He casts the innocent young lovers Aci and Galatea as servants who are employed in the irascible Cyclops Polifemo’s bath complex. Christopher Alden capitalizes on the class warfare element of this shift in focus.

The bathes of Polifemo welcome the audience upon arrival
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
As the audience filed into the space we were immediately transported to the baths of Polifemo. Projections of Sicilian maiolica tiles adorned two of the walls in the otherwise space-age venue at National Sawdust in Williamsburg, and a claw foot bathtub stood toward one end of the stage. Once the orchestra assembled, two figures dressed in unisex hospital-like scrubs complete with hygienic shower caps plodded mechanically out to the center of the stage, each with their own personal Swiffer.® They stood deadpan with their shoulders square to the audience. 

Suicide is always an option
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
Cue the electronic sound effects of vigorous scrubbing and the two begin running their Swiffers back and forth across the floor in front of them, brainlessly, and otherwise motionlessly. It is mind-numbing work and they couldn’t have done it more dejectedly, all while they sing about the beauty of a life lived at liberty, carefree amidst the flowers and the trees. How’s that for irony?

As in the most vivid madrigal word paintings in music of this moment in baroque musical history, their voices ran frolicking through fields of melismas, up and down hills of scales with dramatic intensity, though their body language communicated nothing more than an uninspired humdrum day of hard labor. Yet in the mouths of these two talented interpreters of the baroque, not a single note felt superfluous. It never felt like virtuosity as an end in itself, which is really saying something for the singers as well as the direction.

The predator and his prey
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
The gender confusion created by the gender neutral costumes worn by Aci and Galatea in the opening the opera is only heightened by the score that casts the young shepherd boy Aci as a pants role, sung by soprano Ambur Braid, and his beloved sea nymph Galatea as a castrato, sung on this occasion by the extraordinary countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. As a result, the production kept you guessing as to which of the two was going to be the boy and which the girl, especially since they were even hard to tell apart with their bodies and hair almost completely covered.

Aci launches with a vengeance into a jealousy aria while “he” cleans the tub of the cruel padrone, as the tile projections begin to reveal a series of Big Brother-like unflinching eyes at random across the wall. The effect is both trippy and creepy. He climaxes in an intentionally screeching high note, drowning out even the orchestra with his frustration. The production featured several literal representations of the metaphors of the text, generally in the use of digital projections designed by Mark Grey that unfurled on the rear walls.

Enter Polifemo.

Polifemo is a Cyclops operating on a whole other level
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
Just before the predatory padrone makes his entrance the maiolica tile projection faded away and enormous Trump-style bold block letters in shimmering gold slowly appear across the full expanse of the wall from floor to ceiling. I half expected him to come out with a sad orange-tinged comb over, but thankfully that wasn’t the case. Instead the overbearing Polifemo was sung by the dashing bass-baritone Davóne Tines, a slender ogre of a man, who struck an imposing presence. Both vocally and physically he commanded the scene. In his opening aria he pulled off his long melismatic lines with a giant sound that was technically stunning inasmuch as it left me breathless. His baritone sound grew plush and smooth as he lowered down into the bathtub to terrorize his servants.

The Lord who refuses to let sleeping lovers lie
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
Each da capo repetition gave him the opportunity to add a subtle variation on his embodiment of the character, piling up twisted little motivations for each of the modulations especially during the tender moments of his Non sempre, no, crudele, / mi parlerai così (No, cruel one, you will not always speak to me like that). To which Galatea responds, while “she” shaves and bathes him, Folle, quanto mi rido / di tua vana speranza (Foolish one, how your vain hope makes me laugh). More than just class warfare, the opera is about the grotesque abuse of power, or rather the powerful imposing themselves sexually on the powerless – a timely topic to say the least.

Caps on and gender rules don't apply
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg 
Once they finally take off their shower caps, it becomes clear that Alden is bent on playing with our expectations even further. He had Ambur Braid play up her femininity by flaunting her luscious locks of flowing hair despite the fact that in every other way she wore the “pants” in the relationship, while Anthony Roth Costanzo seemed to embody an albeit effete masculinity but whose behavior tended toward the a more feminine set of gender roles. It was a thrilling gender bending spectacle that only became more intricately entangled as the story evolved.

What made Alden’s vision richer than a mere inditement of Trump’s America was the fluidity with which he played with gender. Polifemo’s appetites seem to know no boundaries when it comes to his insatiable and indiscriminate desire to enact his perverted sense of cruelty on those beneath him. The gender neutrality implicit in the score, here made explicit by Alden and his case, only served to heighten our disgust of Polifemo’s abuses.

Alden additionally doubles down on the tragic outcome of the story. Galatea ends up taking her own life even before her lover has a chance to take his revenge and fall victim to the Cyclops. As a result, Galatea makes her final musical gesture (in a break with the libretto and its original setting) from beyond the grave. Aci goes out with the classic Handel gesture of pulsing strings. Impara, ingrata (Learn, ungrateful one), “he” sings to the wrong person at first, ostensibly lecturing all parties involved about the lengths to which love can take us.

The outlook for the poor nymph Galatea is bleak
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
And so, as in many of the Alden productions I have seen, the show concludes with a sick and twisted gesture. The light of a chandelier alone illumines the funerary final scene. Polifemo seems to be haunted by the trail of bodies left behind that flop about a bit too violently, like fish out of water gasping for a final breath. He props the dead bodies up against the wall together so that the final image we get is that of the frustrated young lovers in death holding hands. Alden’s lovers are memorialized with a tragic flourish of bathos and the audience leaves feeling particularly bleak about the state of current affairs.

­– Lui
A curtain call for troubling times
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

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