One trend of summer 2017 must be Brooklyn does baroque! Following LoftOpera’s muddled Stabat Mater of Pergolesi, Wednesday brought Christopher Alden’s grimly dark and violent take on Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo at National Sawdust. Neither of these works was written to be staged but the latter production worked infinitely better both dramatically and musically. 

Having written extensively here about Aci when it was presented several years ago in concert at Alice Tully Hall, I will just mention that the three-character serenata derives from a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which the cyclops Polyphemus develops a passion for the water nymph Galatea. Shunned by her he kills her paramour—the shepherd Acis—who in death is transformed into a flowing river. Set by a number of composers, the story must have struck a particularly strong chord with Handel who a decade after Aci’s premiere in Italy composed a second completely different version in English, the sublime Acis and Galatea.

Unsurprisingly Alden eschewed the work’s ancient pastoral setting in favor of a spare contemporary one. The large bathroom covered in projected blue-and-white tiles, part of the marvelous production design by Mark Grey, JAX Messenger and Paul Tate dePoo III, subtly evoked the tale’s Ovidian roots with piquant images of ships and assorted sea creatures. Aci and Galatea became frightened, alienated domestics clad (by Therese Wadden) in dark green scrubs, hairnets and yellow rubber gloves. They enter, each dolefully pushing a Swiffer ©, dreading the entrance of Polifemo, their abusive, entitled employer.

When I first learned this production had been master-minded by and would star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, I wondered “Will he be playing Galatea?” as her character is an alto, Aci a soprano. Sure enough Costanzo did perform the female role but the gender-bending was kept to a minimum as the initially androgynous lovers were dressed identically. However strapping soprano Ambur Braid as Aci stood a head taller than Costanzo and her forthright body language contrasted markedly with his more dithering mien. The sung text, however, remained untouched: he addressed her as “caro” and Davòne Tines’s Polifemo raged against Costanzo, the “ingrata.”

For the most part, Alden’s bold reimagining worked well. Happily he trusted his fiercely committed performers to hold the audience’s attention and avoided the common trap of cooking up lots of extraneous business to play out during the extended da capo arias. Though the pervasive atmosphere of sexual intimidation by Polifemo was vividly evoked, one did wonder why the two servants didn’t just quit rather than face death by straight razor—Galatea slit her/his wrist in the bathtub after which Aci has his/her throat slashed.

While I hear more light-and-shade in Handel’s music, Alden’s inexorable reading really gripped the audience despite a few solecisms: Galatea’s post-mortem rising from the tub for “Del mar fra l’onde” during which she/he vampirically embraced Polifemo only to collapse dead again was particularly puzzling—and of course Handel doesn’t have Galatea die at all.

Handel’s wondrous score, full of gems which he would later adapt or reuse in operas throughout his career, is extraordinarily demanding and the three singers and nine-piece period-instrument band Ruckus under the propulsive leadership of Clay Zeller-Townson sometimes struggled. There were no recorder, bassoon or trumpet which limited the instrumental palette. The sole oboe occasionally fumbled, but the continuo group did elegant work all evening. While two theorboes in such a small ensemble seemed excessive and the harsh banging of the baroque guitar in Polifemo’s “Precipitoso” was wildly overdone, the violins and cello played particularly well throughout.

Of the soloists, Tines did the most consistently satisfying work in a devil of a part. He began Polifemo’s brilliant entrance aria “Sibilar” (very familiar from its reappearance in Rinaldo) off-stage then stealthily crept across the stage to manhandle a quivering Costanzo. Although the production chickened out and had him loll in the tub fully clothed, Tines effectively brought out all the character’s lasciviousness and brutish cruelty. His agile bass shirked none of the role’s fiendish demands particularly in the harrowing extremes of “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori.” One of the evening’s most shocking moments came when he appeared to soulfully nuzzle Aci’s neck as she/he slowly died in his arms.

Braid’s soprano is richer, less easily agile than many of the sopranos I’ve heard in Aci’s music—Sandrine Piau, Carolyn Sampson, Christiane Karg, Emma Kirkby, etc. But her bold approach proved bracing in the work’s first half; however, Alden’s “nervous breakdown” staging of Aci’s glorious “Qui l’augel” seemed to cause her to go off the rails: her pitch became very erratic and she never recovered. I was chagrined to discover she plans to take on Tosca next season.

The headline for the profile this week by Eric Grode in the New York Times extravagantly proclaimed “Anthony Roth Costanzo Exists to Transform Opera.” Well… perhaps. Aci is the second production at National Sawdust curated by the adventurous countertenor—Orphic Moments, a mash-up of Gluck and Matthew Aucoin vividly considered by Patrick Clement James here last season sounds more innovative than this year’s Handel.

Despite its pre-performance provocations (Strindberg! Gênet!), the show was fairly traditional despite its unusual venue. Yes, a few recitatives were distorted electronically and the final moralistic coro pre-recorded, but the score (lasting around 90 minutes) was done with just one aria of Galatea’s cut.

Of late Costanzo has been creating a lot of buzz in contemporary works—the world premieres of López’s Bel Canto and Heggie’s Great Scott, along with revivals of Saariaho’s Always Strong/Feather Mantle (in which he co-starred with Tines) and Glass’s Akhnaten, an opera he will soon appear in at the Met. But I realized that I’ve heard him live only in Handel: as Ariodante’s Polinesso at Juilliard, Armindo in Partenope with New York City Opera and two different seasons in the Met’s baroque atrocity The Enchanted Island in which his Ferdinand sings an aria from Amadigi and a duet from a chamber cantata.

As on those previous occasions I was again struck Wednesday by his musicality and dramatic engagement. And yet the voice remains, at least to my ears, basically unattractive especially in the close quarters of National Sawdust where a harsh, hard-edged sound poured forth. Coloratura was efficient if not particularly fluent and was accompanied by a lots of distracting head-bobbing. Although he and Braid worked most effectively together as the oddly paired lovers, their voices didn’t blend well, a disappointment in their dour rendition of the ravishing duet that opened the evening.

I admire Costanzo’s industrious entrepreneurial initiative in reviving Aci, a marvelous but rare early Handel work that most in the audiences during this four-performance run may not have experienced before. While it might be unfair to compare him to the opulent mezzos and contraltos who have sung Galatea, one still wanted more beauty, repose and technical éclat in his singing.

His recent David in Saul at Trinity Wall Street, however stylish, too lacked a mellifluousness one wants in Handel’s music particularly in that role.

Re-listening recently to Costanzo in broadcasts of Semele from Toronto and Partenope from San Francisco, I was again struck by the resemblance of his voice to that of the superb character-countertenor Dominique Visse. While Costanzo’s upcoming assumption of the heroic title role in Giulio Cesare at the Houston Grand Opera this fall seems unwise, his appearance as the ill-fated lover in Philadelphia Opera’s Written on Skin next February promises to be quite special.

Photos: Jill Steinberg