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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Overcast
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Madison Opera's Acis and Galatea gives demigods the emotions of mortals
Rehearsing tragedy and transformation.
Credit:Madison Opera

Madison Opera is about to make history. Acis and Galatea, running Jan. 10-13 at Overture Center's Playhouse, is its first production of an opera by George Frideric Handel.

The opera premiered in England in 1718, but its story intrigued Handel as early as 1708, when he set a version of it to different music in Italy. It became Handel's first English-language dramatic work when John Gay, the English dramatist who wrote The Beggar's Opera, created a rhyming poem for the libretto.

Acis and Galatea takes place long before opera mired itself in human passions. The tale is based on Ovid's mythical Metamorphoses, which shows just how much mischief the demigods can get into.

The plot is simple but profound, according to stage director and choreographer David Lefkowich.

"Acis and Galatea is a fairytale about the love between the nymph Galatea and [the shepherd] Acis," he says. "Galatea lives in a dreamy, perfect world until Polyphemus the cyclops decides to take her for himself."

Despite wise counsel from Damon (tenor J. Adam Shelton), a shepherd who tries to divert these divine creatures from disaster, Acis (tenor Daniel Shirley) dies at the hands of the jealous, one-eyed monster (bass Jeffrey Beruan). But Galatea (soprano Angela Mortellaro) brings her beloved back to life as an eternal fountain.

I have seen this opera set on an enchanted island and in an 18th-century mansion, but Madison Opera will add some grit by moving the action to World War I. Armed with Handel's sunny, lyrical score, conductor John DeMain and a Baroque band made up of Madison Symphony Orchestra musicians will infuse the production with energy. Members of Kanopy Dance Company will also add drama and dynamism.

The stars have a big job: giving divine beings human emotions. For example, Beruan will to try to show the sympathetic side of the cyclops.

"His music, for the most part, can come across as angry and upset, so it will be those small moments of tenderness that will be the challenge," he says. "I'm hoping that the audience will see that Galatea's rejection has hurt me, but they may still hate me because of how I choose to resolve the issue."

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