|Davone Tines, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Ambur Braid|
We are accustomed to gender bending at National Sawdust (Heartbeat Opera's Mozart in Space) but we confess to being rather confused by this production. Let's see if we can get this straight. The role of Aci (a man in the ancient myth which inspired the story in Book XIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses), was sung by soprano Ambur Braid. The role of the (female) sea nymph Galatea was sung by counter-tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. No wonder we were confused. There was no confusion about bass-baritone Davone Tines in the role of the monster Polifemo.
If Director Christopher Alden wanted to make a point about gender stereotypes, he did not succeed. The result in our case was to stop trying to figure out who was whom and to just relish the gorgeous Handelian melodies so well played by the Ruckus Ensemble and so well sung by the three artists.
Handel composed this one-act work in impressive Italianate style when he was but 23 years old in 1708. He would go on to compose another more famous version ten years later with an English language libretto. We are glad to have heard the Italian version in which the music and lyrics are as beautifully committed to one another as Galatea was to Aci.
The devotion was so strong that when the jealous Polifemo kills Aci, Galatea transforms him (her?) into a stream. The musicians, including two theorbos (theorbi?), not only played music but created the most dazzling sound effects. We were not close enough to them to witness the method but the results astonished us. Or perhaps it was the sound design of Mark Grey.
The singing was sensational all around. We first heard Mr. Costanzo about 9 years ago at Manhattan School of Music, before we began writing about opera. He starred as the eponymous Griffelkin and we were totally taken with his startlingly beautiful instrument, the way he employed it, and his stage presence. We have written about him several times since then and his gifts have grown. The unique timbre of his voice ignites all kind of molecular vibrations in our head.
Soprano Ambur Braid is new to our ears but a welcome onstage presence with equivalent facility in her fach. We would be happy to hear her sing again. The timbre of her voice is brilliant and crystalline with great flexibility in the ornamentation.
Bass-baritone Davone Tines, on the other hand, is well known to us from Juilliard where we enjoyed his sturdy voice in numerous productions and particularly appreciated his operetta and zarzuela singing with Stephen Blier's New York Festival of Song. We recall that he also played the violin! What is impressive about his voice, beside the coloration, is the range. At the bottom of the register, the bass is rich and full but there is no shrinking when the tessitura is high.
All three singers provided variety to Handel's music by keen control of dynamics. There were times when the vocal line was spun out like a fine silken thread, causing us to hold our breath. So we would have to declare the evening 100% successful in its musical values.
As far as the production goes, we had difficulty relating to it. As it opened, Aci and Galatea were two janitors wearing what appeared to be surgical scrub suits. Costuming was by Terese Wadden. They were pushing brooms and polishing the back wall of the set (design by Paul Tate dePoo III) which was a projection of tiny squares with designs related to the sea--boats, fish, etc. There was nothing else onstage but a large bathtub. Mark Grey is credited as sound and video designer.
If we failed to appreciate the perplexing concept of Mr. Alden, it did not spoil our pleasure in hearing three magnificent voices filling our ears with music.
(c) meche kroop