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Originally published Monday, March 28, 2011 at 10:37 AM

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Review: A big final weekend for Handel in Seattle

The American Handel Festival ended its stay in Seattle with a full weekend of performances, including "Esther" and "Acis and Galatea," March 25-27, 2011.

Special to The Seattle Times

PERFORMANCE REVIEW |

The final weekend of the American Handel Festival in Seattle, which has explored the composer's output to the tune of some 30 concerts over the past two weeks, offered performances of "Acis and Galatea" and "Esther." Composed in 1718, both works were set to English texts, and they carried within them the seeds of the monumental series of English oratorios that was to occupy Handel's final years after the production of opera had become commercially unsustainable.

Presented at Town Hall on Friday by Pacific MusicWorks, the festival's "Acis and Galatea" came to us courtesy of the celebrated Boston Early Music Festival, in its local debut. Co-directed musically by BEMF's Paul O'Dette and Seattle's own Stephen Stubbs, it was one of those "play-within-a-play" productions, semi-staged, with handsome costumes by Anna Watkins but without scenery. Stage director Gilbert Blin conceived it as an imaginary rehearsal for a performance.

What we saw was a rather Pirandello-esque spectacle — the five characters of this Arcadian love story in search of a composer. The principals took their turns on center stage, and then moved off to the side to enjoy what my English compatriots still call "a nice cup of tea" while someone else took over the vocal thread.

Movement was largely stylized. Blin drew from his actor-singers a vocabulary of gesture faithful to the pre-Romantic tradition, with the performer aiming not to embody, but to represent in a more dispassionate way, the emotions of the character in question. This made it easier for the persons of the story to shift when necessary out of character and become simply the tenors, soprano and bass of the ensembles that frame the plot.

Once or twice there was a danger of distraction, when someone was gesturing upstage while another of the principals was singing. For the most part, however, the conception worked beautifully — and musically, the performance was an unalloyed delight. Aaron Sheehan and Teresa Wakim in the title roles made an attractive pair of lovers; the two other shepherds' parts were finely touched in by Jason McStoots and Zachary Wilder; and the Polyphemus, Douglas Williams, a formidable stage presence, laid so firm a foundation for the harmony that the texture of the ensembles sounded more lucid than ever. The BEMF Chamber Ensemble, too, played superbly, with some spectacular tootling on the sopranino recorder by Kathryn Montoya over Williams's uproarious "O ruddier than the cherry."

Stephen Stubbs' performance of "Esther" in St. James Cathedral on Saturday brought clean singing and playing by Doug Fullington's Tudor Choir and the Pacific MusicWorks orchestra. Sharon Mercer and the indefatigable Ross Hauck were excellent as Esther and Assuerus. Charles Robert Stephens was suitably formidable as the unsavory Haman in this regrettably still relevant tale of historical anti-Semitism, and Zachary Wilder, Matthew White, Catherine Webster and Thomas Thompson filled the roles of a variety of Israelites capably.

Handel had a genius for ending substantial works with a light touch, so it was perhaps appropriate that the festival's last offering was a relatively lightweight concert in Town Hall on Sunday afternoon by Ingrid Matthews' splendid Seattle Baroque Orchestra. It seemed almost perverse to bill the program as "Handel's Grand Concertos" and then not to include anything from the supreme Opus 6 set, but the concertos and sonatas we did hear were expertly and often beautifully done. Thanks to Marty Ronish for bringing the American Handel Festival for the first time to Seattle — but what are we devotees to do with ourselves in the Handel-less weeks to come?

Bernard Jacobson: bernardijacobson@comcast.net

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