Opera Review: The Techs are Stars of the Opera

MADISON, Wis. - O.K., I don't think I've experienced this before.

The overwhelming stars of Madison Opera's performance of Handel's Acis and Galatea are the technicians, the scenic designer – Alan C. Edwards – the costume designer – Karen Brown Larimore – the lighting designer – Johnn Frautschy, well, you get the picture.

Add in stage director David Lefkowich, production stage manager Jill Krynicki, and wig and makeup designer Jan Ross and you've got a pretty full complement.

The singing? Yeah, it was good. But we have come to expect high quality music in Madison. We'll get back to them.

Here's the story: This opera, which has very little action, and is performed in a relatively small theater, the Overture Center's Playhouse, is a little hard to make interesting.

For one thing, Handel's music is beautiful – but if you shut your eyes and just listen you can be forgiven for thinking you are at a performance of the "Messiah."
And the story is odd.

It involves a water nymph – right, a water nymph named Galatea (sung by Angela Mortellaro) who is in love with a warrior named Acis, sung by Daniel Shirley. Everyone is happy, happy, happy – that's what the singers proclaim (the script is a bit uninspired), especially when Acis shows up.

The problem is there is a monster giant Cyclops, Polyphemus, who is also in love with Galatea.

When he sees her embracing Acis, he goes a bit berserk.

So, we have a problem: Polyphemus, sung by Jeffrey Beruan, is, in real life, not a Cyclops and not particularly larger than the other characters.

The opera got around this by using a two-level stage. When Polyphemus is on stage with other singers, he is on the top level. When he wants to wreck havoc, he reaches into a shadow box and picks up little characters – in the meanwhile, the real singers are on the lower level mimicking what Polyphemus does to the toys. It works.

Polyphemus kills Acis, which makes Galatea quite unhappy. So she turns Acis into a fountain.

Problem two: The Playhouse stage does not have the makings of a fountain. What the Opera crew did was to take an incredibly long bolt of blue cloth, have Madison's Kanopy Dance crew unfurl it across the stage and the orchestra seats, and convince us that it is a fountain.

In the meantime, of course, Acis dies. He is surrounded by other cast members and he seems to sink into the earth. Actually, he does sink into the earth because there is a hidden trap door that we don't know about until Acis sinks into it. This works, too. Everything works, which certainly wouldn't be a given when you consider the complexity of all this.

Now, the singers. Beruan has a wonderful deep voice and is remarkably believable in his role as a sensitive monster. Mortellaro and Shirley sing well together. The ensemble, which includes John Arnold, Jennifer DeMain, Jeni Houser and Josh Sanders, and Jessica Lee Timman, make a nice quintet and J. Adam Shelton is enjoyable in the role of Damon – but I haven't quite figured out what Damon's role is.

And, since we've named everyone else in the cast, the dancers, Emma Carlisle, Olive Earley, Flora Hayes and Zoe Koenig, actually add to the understanding of the performance, which isn't always true of ballet in the opera.

So, it's a nice performance. The technical crew are the stars but, when you think about it, the real star is General Manager Kathryn Smith, who had the foresight to hire all these people and help them work as a team.

The opera will be performed Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

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