For those who have even heard of the names Acis and Galatea, with respect to early opera or music drama, it would be a near certainty that it is either a well-known treatment by Lully (1686) or the two by Handel (1708 and 1718). I would say that on this day, probably all of us had our first encounter with the Spanish composer Antonio de Literes (1673–1747) as we heard his version of the mythological love story Acis and Galatea.

Not only was this a regional premiere of this music play and an introduction to this esteemed, but little known composer, but it was also the coming out and welcoming of El Fuego to Chapel Hill, their new home. Previously based in Boston, El Fuego (“fire” in Spanish) is a unique ensemble that blends early music with folk styles. Under the artistic direction of singer, lutenist and guitarist of all genres and eras, Salome Sandoval, this group’s acclaim and stellar reputation has preceded them, and we are thrilled to have them residing and performing in the Triangle area.

This rare performance of Literes’ Acis and Galatea took place at the Chapel of the Cross, a lovely church right next to the UNC’s Morehead Planetarium. Although certainly not as large as, say, a Mozart opera, this work does have an eight-voice chorus, eight vocal soloists and five instrumentalists – a not insubstantial collection of performers. All of this music making and entrances, which even included some dancing, had to take place in a very crowded chancel, but it all proceeded quite fluidly and with a minimum of bumping.

Speaking of Mozart operas – The Magic Flute in particular – Acis and Galatea is similar in that there is spoken text as well as sung parts, which in the Spanish tradition is known as Zarzuela. Add the comedic aspect of both and you have a reasonable trajectory of musical cousins. We have here your typical sea-nymph loves shepherd which invokes great jealousy in a Cyclops story. Assorted sea-related creatures mirror mythological gods, and much liberty is taken to fashion elements of the story to Hispanic tradition and literature. Easily readable supertitles, courtesy of Sandoval, who also adapted the script, were unobtrusively provided.

Acis is in two acts, each with seven scenes and about equal in length. Musically, this was quite a revelation with an astounding variety of texture, instrumentation and assortment of superb choral writing, solos and duets. I was so absorbed in the extraordinary quality of this music that I ended up ignoring the text for big blocks of time. Makes you wonder about all the gems out there by lesser-known composers. So, for my first hearing of this, the story, staging and drama seemed to take a back seat to the glorious music and the superb musicians and singers.

Sandoval, playing a baroque guitar throughout, served as conductor (when needed) and rhythmic anchor. She is also a splendid singer who had several solos, with and without her guitar. The rest of the El Fuego instrumental ensemble was Paula Maust, harpsichord, and baroque violinists Allison Willet and Matvey Lapin, who played one of the most astounding solos in the second act. The guest Baroque cellist was Barbara Krumdieck, well-known to North Carolina early music lovers. She brilliantly supported the harmony literally throughout the entire opera with hardly a break.

The two main characters were quite superb and easily the equal of any singer performing in this difficult style. Tamsin Simmill, as Acis, and Molly Quinn, Galatea, were elegance, virtuosity and beautiful phrasing. Throw in their communication of the text and believable interaction with the other characters and you have world-class performances. The other featured soloists were William Lycan, Nate Quinn, Lewis Moore, Malina Rauschenfel (who also played castanets) and Tracy Cowart. They all sang with lovely pure tones with hardly a vibrato the entire afternoon! There was some dancing, and considering the very crowded space, it all went quite well.

Visually, the most notable character, perhaps because he was fifteen feet tall, was the Cyclops, which had a nicely designed costume. It was no easy task for the person inside to balance it for the more than ninety minutes on stage, and a few times he had to use a wall for support. As compared to the soloists, the chorus sounded as if a few more rehearsals would have improved some of their intonation and rhythmic precision. 

I hope the word gets out about El Fuego – that they now make their home here and that they are a tremendously talented and innovative ensemble. This presentation of Acis and Galatea was an enormous undertaking, and it seemed a shame that more people did not see it. More concerts are coming – don’t miss the next one.