“Resist!” could be the 21st-century motto of Handel’s serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, a mythological story of steadfast love cleverly interpreted by the director Christopher Alden as a modern-day tale of bullying and manipulation. The staging, co-produced by countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, Cath Brittan, the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, and National Sawdust (and reviewed on July 13), completes its brief run this week.
Handel composed his seldom-performed serenata, based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for a ducal wedding in 1708 in Naples. (He used the same dramatic material for his his 1718 pastoral opera Acis and Galatea.) In the myth, the water nymph Galatea and the mortal shepherd Aci are in love, but their affair is threatened by the jealous one-eyed cyclops Polyphemus, who is outraged when Galatea rejects him.
Polyphemus kills his rival with a boulder; Neptune, Galatea’s father, then turns Aci into a river that flows into the sea, where he can be reunited with Galatea. The myth’s moral of fidelity seems apt for a wedding, although the grisly ending surely must have been rather a downer. But cheery entertainment wasn’t a prerequisite for baroque nuptials: after all, Monteverdi composed L’Arianna – with its heartbreaking lament by the abandoned heroine – for a royal wedding.
In this fascinating gender-fluid staging of Aci, Costanzo sang the role of Galatea and the soprano Ambur Braid portrayed Aci. Handel, whose operas feature plenty of gender-bending, would surely have approved, especially since he wrote the role of Aci for soprano and the role of Galatea for alto. The two characters were portrayed as servants, unisex in green scrubs, yellow cleaning gloves, and hair tucked behind caps. Expressions of boredom and desperation flickered across their faces as they mopped the floor during the opening love duet, Galatea wringing out a cloth with anguished vigor.
A bathroom with chandelier proved an apt modern setting for the story. Evocative digital images by the video designer Mark Grey evolved in real time, heightening the sense of drama. Before Polifemo’s arrival, the blue-and-white nautical images projected on the wall tiles morphed into myriad single eyeballs, followed by Polifemo’s name in brash, Trumpian lettering. As their threatening, bathrobe-clad master appeared, Aci and Galatea stood against the wall, heads bowed and hands clasped subserviently.