Mollicone’s Face on the Barroom Floor, Handel’s Acis and Galatea
By Peter Alexander July 27 at 12:45 p.m.
Central City Opera is offering two one-act operas this summer, in addition to their two full-scale productions in the main opera house (Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Mozart’s Magic Flute).
Handel’s Acis and Galatea is receiving its first CCO production, while The Face on the Barroom Floor by Henry Mollicone was written for the company 40 years ago and was performed annually until a few years ago. It is being revived this year for its fortieth anniversary. Both shows are cast with members of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program.
I may be the last person in Colorado who has not seen Face on the Barroom Floor, but if you find yourself in the same category, it’s too late this year; remaining performances of this modest 25-minute work are all sold out. The opera is presented in the Williams’ Stables, an intimate theater space across the street from the main Central City Opera House. And that is both the joy and the one drawback of the performance.
It is a joy, because everyone in the 90-seat Williams’ Stables performance space is close enough to interact with the singers. In fact, members of the audience are recruited to stand in as the barroom’s patrons for about half of the opera. But the drawback is that it is a small space, with a low ceiling, easily filled by operatic voices. Between pure volume and some imperfect diction, not all of the text can be understood.
That aside, the performance is great entertainment. It is a young person’s story, brim full of youthful passions, ideally suited for the young artists of the training program. The cast I saw had Gillian Hollis as Isabelle/Madeline, who becomes the face; Zachary Johnson as the hotheaded barman of past and present (Tom/John), and Martin Luther Clark as his sarcastic, skeptical rival for Isabelle/Madeline’s attentions (Larry/Matt). All were delightful.
Hollis was pert, pretty and bright-voiced in the central role—can we call it the title role? She sang with convincing expression throughout, capturing the audience’s sympathies as she tries to keep the testosterone-fueled macho outbursts of the men under control. Of course, sopranos often have to die in opera, but it must be a record that she, poor thing, is shot dead twice in about 15 minutes.
Johnson was the very image of the bartender, solicitous of the guests from the audience, then on alert both times Larry/John came into his bar. His voice is clear and strong, his acting effective and believable. In spite of his morally ambiguous role in both scenes, he remained a sympathetic character.
Clark has a solid tenor voice, with clear diction throughout; not a word was lost. He put across Larry’s sarcasm in the present-day scenes so well that one understood the bartender’s antagonism but not why Isabelle was with him in the first place. His fights with Tom/John were well done, by both actors and in both eras.
The small accompanying ensemble (piano, flute, cello) played well, the costumes are effective in both delineating character and distinguishing eras, the staging fitting. If you missed it, you may need to lobby CCO to produce it again; it is a Central City tradition well worth enjoying.
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Handel is a world away from the old West and Mollicone’s gritty barroom drama, but Acis and Galatea is another opera well suited to young singers. Populated by shepherds, nymphs and a monstrous cyclops from Greek mythology, it has the same central conflict as Face: two men fighting for a woman’s love. Performed before a house of 120 seats set up in an open rehearsal room of the Martin Foundry in Central City, Acis is as intimate as Face, with members of the audience invited the help during the performance.
In Handel’s “Pastoral Entertainment” (as it was billed in 1718), Acis and Galatea are deeply in love and pine for one another when separated. The cyclops Polyphemus desires Galatea, and in his raging jealousy he kills Acis. But just as the spirit of Madeline haunts the barroom in Face, Acis lives on in a stream so that Galatea can swim in his love forever.
Director Ken Cazan has cleverly updated the setting to a Woodstock-like ‘60s hippie haven, an effective modern analogue to the pleasure-seeking Arcadian world evoked by the pastoral poetry of Handel’s time. Lines such as “Love on her breast sits panting” and “When he returns, no more she mourns, but loves the live-long day” certainly suggest the era of “make love, not war.” Cazan even takes in the modern sense the words of the opening chorus: “Happy nymphs and happy swains, harmless, merry, free and gay, dance and sport the hours away.”
The set—a long, narrow platform that runs the full diagonal length of the hall—, the costumes by Stacie Logue, and the hippy-dippy manner of the five-member cast all support the transformation to the sixties. The music, however, is pure Handel, and some of his most gorgeous music at that—stylishly played and sung by the cast and a small orchestra under the able direction of Christopher Zemliauskas. It was a joy to hear.
The 18th-century English of the libretto does not lend itself to easy understanding by a modern audience. Texts such as “Ye verdant plains and woody mountains, purling streams and bubbling fountains,” and “Where shall I seek the charming fair?” are not easily grasped, especially when diction is compromised by elaborate twists and turns of the vocal lines, but the simple plot is easily conveyed through action.
The cast were all strong and well rehearsed, keeping ensembles together even when wide apart on the runway set and facing different directions. (A mirror at one of the room allowed them to see Zemliauskas even with their back to him.) Phrasing and sound were all fit well to Handel’s style.
As Galatea, Graycen Gardner sang with a flexible soprano, handling leaps and flourishes with apparent ease. Her musicality and exquisite phrasing were a source of pleasure. George Milosh brought a light, lyrical tenor voice to the role of Acis. His command of the text was evident, as almost every word came through. Baritone Matthew Peterson coped well with the rapid coloratura lines of “the monster Polypheme,’ keeping his musical focus even while being wheeled up and down the set, standing on a chair. Chris Mosz and Benjamin DaCosta-Kaufman, the designated “free and gay” members of the hippy band, were effective in their smaller parts as Damon and Corydon.
The orchestra provided more than support for the singers. From a stylishly played overture to the closing chorus (“Galatea, dry thy tears, Acis now a god appears!”) they performed the Baroque score on the highest level—the more credit to conductor Zemliauskas, whose barefoot entrance, flashing peace signs to the audience set the scene as well as his leadership set the musical level.
Acis and Galateais a great opportunity to hear some little known, enchanting music by Handel. Tickets are still available for the performance at 8 p.m. Aug. 1.