“Who were these people? How did they think? What would it be like to experience life in their time and gain full insight into their musical minds?” These are some of the main questions I ask when doing research to aid my understanding of historically informed performance in 17th and 18th-century Baroque music. In particular, I have always wondered what attending a Baroque opera with authentic period costumes, instruments, and sets would be like, yet until now, Chicago has been unfortunately devoid of such a company. On Saturday, my dream came true when the Haymarket Opera Company – founded specifically for the purpose mentioned above – made its sparkling, second-day debut with Handel’s charming and touching “Aci, Galatea, e Polifermo” at Evanston’s small and intimate Mayne Stage.

Angela Young Smucker, left, as Galatea and Josefien Stoppelenburg © Wendy Benner
Angela Young Smucker, left, as Galatea and Josefien Stoppelenburg
© Wendy Benner

An ancient Greek myth re-set in the glory of the 18th century, this one-act opera – originally conceived as a serenata – tells the classic Greek myth of the sea nymph Galatea, her lover Aci, and the evil Cyclops Polifermo, whose lustful desires and possessive wrath seek to keep them apart forever. Only tragic means and self-sacrifice permit their unity and the villain’s defeat. In the Baroque Era, classical mythology served as prime opera material for the entertainment of the classically-educated public and Handel’s 1708 version of this classic tale therefore served as a highly fitting opening for Haymarket’s debut. Though with a three-singer cast and a modest yet powerfully contrived set, the production captured all the lavishness and charm of an authentic 18th-century production. Classical rhetoric – indispensable to Baroque thinking and musical composition of the period – was omnipresent, most potently in the musical interpretation, costuming, and especially the eloquent gestures of the individual singers. Vital to the art of Baroque interpretation and especially its rhetorical aspects, the gestures and corresponding facial expressions reinforced the characters’ individual characteristics, communicating strong feelings of disgust, affection, and countless other emotions to the audience. In this manner, the Doctrine of the Affections – capturing a particular mood so as to put the audience in that mood – was so masterfully applied that the characters’ antics and ambitions often elicited chuckles and sighs from audience members. This gesturing made the characters more “human” and the production more “real” – I was not watching mere acting and a contrived drama, but rather real-life people in a real-life drama unfolding before my eyes.

With regard to both the vocal and instrumental performers themselves, all sparkled and shone in the authentic 18th-century light. Though not the “big name” singers that one would find at the Lyric Opera of Chicago or any major opera company, each of the three singers performed outstandingly and possessed the characteristic, light Baroque voice and individual charm necessary for the authentic interpretation of Baroque opera. While the youthful soprano Josefien Stoppelenburg and the equally charming mezzo soprano Angela Young Smucker proved the most adorable, affectionate, and angelic-sounding Aci and Galatea, booming bass Benjamin LeClair proved the perfect contrast as the ponderous and pompous Polifermo. LeClair’s interpretation of his character particularly caught my attention. While Poifermo is undoubtedly vile, LeClair masterfully interjected a brilliant “comic villain” touch that was very well-received by the audience, offsetting the dark and more foreboding aspects of the opera. The accompanying ensemble composed of solely period instruments was equally impressive and mirrored the musical rhetoric of the singers at all times. Because the ensemble was visible in this production rather than being veiled behind the walls of an orchestral pit, I was more able to observe and critique the players, including individual members’ playing. Orchestra leader and Baroque cellist Craig Trompeter led the orchestra with poise, carefully balancing playing with conducting. As a recorder player, I was most enchanted with the eloquent oboe and recorder solos of Debra Nagy who practically made her instruments weep with the singers’ lamentations. Harpsichordist Paul Nicholson added the most delicate tinkle to the continuo section, while concertmaster Jeri-Lou Zike and assistant concertmaster Wendy Harton Benner led the strings section with perfect eclat. The ensemble somewhat stole the show for me; I often caught myself watching them instead of the singers, carefully critiquing for historical bowings, tonguings, rhetoric, Doctrine of the Affections, and other staple Baroque interpretation conventions.

All in all, after having experienced overboard modernization at my first Baroque opera this past March, this historically-informed production proved most refreshing and satisfying to my historically informed performance practice (HIPP) loving spirit. After seeing this production, I wholeheartedly agree with those who claim that the most heartwarming and beautiful aspects of culture often emanate from the simplest examples. Though this opera, production, and cast was comparatively modest to what I expected from a period opera production, I was most charmed by the delightful story, the awe-inspiring performers, and more prominently in awe of the company’s ingenuity in picking a production that suited their current budget. From the quality and care that emanated from this humble performance, I am most convinced that the Haymarket Opera Company has a highly promising future and will proceed to become a permanent fixture and revered cultural treasure in Chicago. As both an ardent supporter of HIPP and a musical participant in this most fascinating musical movement, I cannot possibly wait to see what the Haymarket Opera Company has in store for the near and far future!

*****