It might have been a gaggle of particularly irritating latecomers, shuffling down the aisle as the overture played, and chattering to one another. Instead it was the cast of Handel's "Acis and Galatea," dressed in evening wear en route to the platform, where a bottle of sparkly something sat on ice, and cozy armchairs awaited them.
The conceit was a clever one. Acis, a so-called "pastoral opera" — think nymphs, shepherds, love interest, and the occasional monster — was written in 1718 for a Downton Abbey-style aristocrat, and Friday evening's semi-staging in Minneapolis by the Twin Cities Early Music Festival riffed playfully on the piece's status as a divertissement for the upper classes, its darker moments counterpointed by elements of blithe self-parody and visual humor.
Amid the shape-shifting and shenanigans is some of Handel's most delicious music. Much of it falls to Acis, the sea nymph in thrall to Galatea, her human lover. Linh Kauffman sang the part, applying her creamy-smooth soprano and excellent breath control to the gorgeous lyrical arias Handel wrote for the character. Gliding unobtrusively from levity to the more serious demeanor required at the opera's conclusion, Kaufmann glowed in the moving "Must I my Acis still bemoan," helped not a little by her scrupulous attention to diction.
Among the supporting singers baritone Jake Endres had the tricky task of making the giant Polyphemus at once funny, threatening and touching. By an impressive combination of arm-waving, visual tics and intelligently varied vocalism, he did it, nailing the difficult runs in his entrance arias, and hamming up the recitative "I rage, I melt" with relish.
Roy Heilman and Clara Osowski filled the smaller parts of Damon and Corydon with their customary distinction. As Acis, tenor Gary Ruschman delivered a pugnacious "Love sounds the alarm," flinging his tuxedo to the floor like a street fighter, then expiring like a trouper when Polyphemus clouted him with an imaginary boulder.
Festival director Donald Livingston led the band, shaping the music sweetly from a harpsichord and organ. The rhythmically on-point playing of first violinist Marc Levine kept the ensemble honest, and there was special pleasure in the chirruping sopranino recorder obbligatos of Cléa Galhano. Spry and irrepressible, they typified the spirit of the evening — a festival performance done from love, not necessity, and all the warmer as a consequence.
Terry Blain is a Twin Cities classical music critic.