Critical acclaim for the DFO’s “Acis and Galatea” opera in the park performance!

Acis and Galatea opera dazzles in park setting

from the Duluth News Tribune on Monday, August 23, 2010 by Sam Black

Without counting, several hundred people of all ages gathered at Leif Erikson Park on Sunday evening to watch a retelling of the tragic love story of “Acis and Galatea” by the Duluth Festival Opera company.

If you weren’t there, you missed it! The music came from 1718 and the pen of George Frederic Handel, but stage director Craig Fields decided to set the story in a Midwestern barnyard.

Certainly, the cast of singers and dancers delighted each generation seated on the hillside.

In brief, Galatea comes from a watery world, but the young man Acis loves her and captures her fancy as well. The bumpkin, a.k.a. Polyphemus in another setting, is jealous, and ultimately removes Acis with a very large boulder. As Galatea mourns, a fountain (or stream) begins to flow, announcing the ongoing presence of Acis, and her mourning turns to rejoicing. Ovid’s ancient story can fit just about anywhere, even Duluth, USA.

In the atmosphere of Leif Erikson Park, celebration certainly prevailed. One must remember that the concert hall is a relatively recent invention. For Handel, his audience would have food and drink in hand, and be as interested in their friends as in the stage show. For us, attention was primarily directed to the amphitheater, with conductor Markand Thakar leading a chamber ensemble from the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra with a spectacular backdrop known as Lake Superior.

I suppose the amplification was necessary in the outdoors, but it was disappointing to have all the sound of orchestra and singers coming through large boxes (speakers) placed all around the stage.

Even so, the production was dazzling! On 10 occasions, dancers came out to subtly interpret the unfolding drama on stage. Their wistful movements matched the breeze and the lake murmurings in this story of unrequited love. The orchestra was nicely balanced with the chorus, as they summarized and commented on the behavior of the main characters.

Marc Schapman as Acis was crystal clear and filled with love right up to the moment he was stoned by the jealous farmhand, Branch Fields. Fields added a southwestern drawl to his singing to paraphrase images from “Oklahoma!” perhaps, even as he wasn’t going to get the girl he set his eyes on.

Colyn Tvete, as the barkeep Damon, consoled both Galatea and Acis while supplying tall beverages to order. As Galatea, Penelope Shumate attracted a lot of attention at center stage, but she was left alone with the lonesome awareness of her beauty.

Shumate’s voice, while full and wonderful, seemed a bit heavy for the lines of Galatea, but in the outdoor setting, that was a distinct advantage. Tvete’s light tenor was uplifting to both of his barroom clients. Fields was extremely humorous with his drawling Handel, right up to the moment he pounded the amorous life out of the naive Acis.

Choreographer Juliana Bertelsen was airy and delicate in directing her seven dancers in and around the tensions on stage. Throughout, Handel’s music always is direct, whether grieving or rejoicing, and ultimately, the sense of “Happy, happy, we!” prevailed throughout the park.

Samuel Black is music director at Duluth Congregational Church and a regular presence in the musical delights of Duluth.

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