Arts & Events

Handel’s Atalanta at San Francisco Conservatory of Music

reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday March 17, 2017 - 04:25:00 PM

The opera Atalanta by George Friederic Handel received a semi-staged production last weekend, March 11-2, at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Handel composed Atalanta for the events celebrating the 1736 wedding of Frederick, Prince of Wales, to Princess Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. The story of Atalanta is drawn from the pastoral tradition of ancient Greek writers, who delighted in depicting the simple life of shepherds and nymphs. Here the story revolves around two couples: the shepherd Aminta and the nymph Irene, and the noble couple comprised of Meleagro, King of Aetolia, and Atalanta, Princess of Arcadia. To complicate matters, both Meleagro and Atalanta appear in disguise, he as the shepherd Tirsi, she as the huntress Amarilli. In a ‘back-story’, Atalanta had rebuffed the marriage proposal of Meleagro and had gone off instead to imitate the chaste goddess of the hunt, Artemis.  

Atalanta opens with an extended overture featuring the Baroque trumpet, artfully played by Dominic Favia at the Sunday matinee I attended. Then Meleagro appears onstage, singing the cavatina, “Care selve” (“Dear forests”). Sunday’s Meleagro was sung in a trousers role by soprano Morgan Balfour, who right from the outset wowed the audience with her brilliant coloratura. Balfour’s voice is rich in color and her technique is impeccable. This is a young singer to watch! Meleagro’s purpose in coming to these forests, he declares, is “in search of my heart.” In short, he hopes to persuade Atalanta to reciprocate his love.  

Meleagro is joined onstage by the shepherd Aminta, sung on Sunday by tenor James Hogan. Aminta confides to Meleagro his love for the nymph Irene, who treats him with disdain. The two men commiserate with one another before exiting the stage. Irene enters and confides to her father that though she loves Aminta, she is annoyed by the dowry conditions he put on their proposed engagement. She says she wants to test Aminta. Irene was sung on Sunday by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Dickerson, who possesses fine vocal technique and a good comic sense. Her father, Nicandro, was sung by baritone Bradley Kynard, who endowed his character with stern disapproval of his daughter’s desire to test rather than trust Aminta.  

When Atalanta first appears, disguised as Amarilli, she sings a rousing hunt song in which she urges her hunting party to give chase to a wild boar that has been spotted. When she kills the boar, she exults in her success, though she wonders if she will as easily subdue the pangs of her own heart. At Sunday’s performance Atalanta was sung by Sarah Szeibel, whose soprano is a bit darker than that of Morgan Balfour, which will later bring a welcome contrast/complement to their duets. As Act I closes, Meleagro voices his resolve to restrain his passion for the moment and rely on patience and hope. 

In Act II, Atalanta confesses to herself her attraction to Tirsi. Not realizing that he is Meleagro in disguise, she laments the disparity in their social standing. Meleagro overhears Atalanta’s remarks and, delighted, tries to clear up her confusion. However, he is tongue-tied in his efforts, and Atalanta continues to believe he is the simple shepherd Tirsi. Here Morgan Balfour and Sarah Szeibel sang a lively duet full of coloratura embellishments. There ensue further confusions when Meleagro/Tirsi enlists Irene’s help, which she then uses to inflame Aminta’s jealousy, and Atalanta/Amarilli enlists Aminta’s help, which he then uses to make Irene jealous. Tenor James Hogan as Aminta sang splendidly in his revenge aria, and he displayed a fine comic sense, much to Irene’s dismay. Left alone, Irene sings of the sorrow in her heart now that she thinks she has lost Aminta, who seems happily loved by Amarilli. Meleagro overhears Irene’s lament and thinks he has lost Atalanta/Amarilli. Overcome with despair, Meleagro faints. When he comes to, Amarilli declares her love for him, though she still believes he is the shepherd Tirsi. Irene’s father, Nicandro, enters with Irene and Aminta, who have reconciled, and he clears up the confusion of identities, asking everyone to celebrate the coming union of the two couples. Meleagro and Atalanta now sing the duet, “Caro/Cara,” in which they pledge their love to one another. A final fanfare ensues, with once again the Baroque trumpet leading the way, as all five singers and a small chorus welcome the union of the two couples.  

Corey Jamason conducted the San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s Baroque Ensemble, and Jamason shared directorial credits with Elisabeth Reed. This semi-staged production of Atalanta offered a whimsical, light-hearted opera that provided a wonderful introductory vehicle for a singer to watch in soprano Morgan Balfour, who seemingly has a great future in store for her.