BWW Review: Costanzo Itchy to Bring Obscure Handel ACI to National Sawdust Audiences

BWW Review: Costanzo Itchy to Bring Obscure Handel ACI to National Sawdust Audiences

BWW Review: Costanzo Itchy to Bring Obscure Handel ACI to National Sawdust Audiences
Ambur Braid and Anthony Roth
Costanzo. Photo: Jill Steinberg

ACI, GALATEA E POLIFEMO (ACIS, GALATEA AND POLYPHEMUS)--which just opened a short run at Brooklyn's National Sawdust venue, ending on July 20, with star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo--may be the most obscure Handel opera that you think you know but don't. (And it's not an opera, either, for that matter.)

The more famous Handel ACIS AND GALATEA--usually called a serenata or cantata and written as a divertissement for a wedding--was written in 1718, which post-dates this one by about a decade. The later version was an English language pastorale, lighter in tone, while this Italian one (written when he was just 23) was pretty gruesome, at least in Christopher Alden's unappealing staging. (Was it really written for a wedding?)

There are numerous arias that will sound familiar in this one--but only because the composer recycled them for more famous works, e.g., AGRIPPINA and RINALDO, to name two. And, this time around, there's gender-bending that may remind you of Jean Genet's THE MAIDS and product placement that might bring to mind late-night TV infomercials for Swiffer© Sweepers.

BWW Review: Costanzo Itchy to Bring Obscure Handel ACI to National Sawdust Audiences
Anthony Roth Costanzo, Ambur Braid
and Davone Tines. Photo: Jill Steinberg

The whole thing takes place in a large bathroom, with images of the sea projected as part of the production design by Mark Grey (sound and video), JAX Messenger (lighting) and Paul Tate dePoo III (set design). Aci (the supple soprano Ambur Braid) and Galatea (Costanzo) are put-upon maids in green scrubs, showercaps and yellow rubber gloves, pushing their Swiffers, as they wait the entrance of the dreaded, abusive Polifemo (the exciting bass-baritone Davone Tines as the cyclops). He raises droit de seigneur to new heights.

In other words, it may be a good idea to put on a blindfold and concentrate on the music and performances--including some excellent work from the Ruckus Ensemble, period instrument specialists--than on the ham-fisted idea for a production that Alden dreamed (or, nightmared) up.

There was fine work from the three singers, starting with Costanzo, who is also somewhat of an impresario these days, not only as a producer at National Sawdust but for WQXR's recently completed Opera Party series, where he combined wonderful singing with silliness. He has great presence and an unbelievable range, whether measured in octaves or in decibels. This time around, he seems have chosen the less showy of the roles open to him--the contralto Galatea vs. the once-castrato-now countertenor Aci, bringing sensuality and sensitivity to the part.

Braid brought all the emotional intensity that the role of Aci called for, along with good stage presence and a gorgeous sound. Polifemo is the piece's most virtuoso role--with serious demands both on the low and high ends of the voice--and Tines was well up to it, with his burly sound and dominant stage presence, from his off-stage entry into the story ("Silibar") to its most-monstrous acts.

According to the program notes from dramaturg Cori Ellison, "Our production of ACI, GALATEA E POLIFEMO finds parallels between Handel's youthful telling of Ovid's tale and our current era, defined as it is by class and power, which ultimately cannot bully or buy love." Well, name me an age not defined at least in part by class and power--though our current one seems to be put the ability to bully or buy love into in some question.

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ACI, GALATEA E POLIFEMO has two more performances, both sold out. It is produced by Anthony Roth Costanzo and Cath Brittan and is a co-production of National Sawdust & Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale.


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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.