Longtime San Francisco Chamber Orchestra conductor Benjamin Simon leads Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” this week. (Courtesy Dona Kopol Bonick)

SF Chamber Orchestra stages free ‘Night at the Opera’

As Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s triumphant revival of Mary Zimmermann’s “Metamorphoses” is being extended through March 24, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra is getting ready to present three free performances of “Acis and Galatea,” Handel’s opera based also based on Ovid’s tales about transformations.

Written 300 years ago, “Acis and Galatea” was the German composer’s first of many dramatic works written in English, including “Messiah.” The text, based on an episode from “Metamorphoses,” is by John Gay, author of “The Beggar’s Opera,” and the poet Alexander Pope.

The tale is about the love between Galatea, a semi-divine nymph, and Acis, a simple shepherd. Their romance is disrupted by the jealous cyclops Polyphemus, who kills Acis, but Galatea transforms her lover into an immortal river spirit.

“If you like the ‘Messiah,’ you will love ‘Acis and Galatea,’” says SFCO Music Director Benjamin Simon, in his 17th season with the group.

Three SFCO “A Night at the Opera“ performances this week in San Francisco, Palo Alto and Berkeley are free, as is the case with all Chamber Orchestra concerts since the group was established in 1953.

SFCO is the only fully professional chamber orchestra in the U.S. that performs all concerts admission-free, including MainStage Series concerts for adults, a family series for children, and a “very first” series for toddlers in communities around the Bay Area.

The orchestra is supported by grants, a membership program and an annual gala event. This year’s “Two for Tango” is March 23 at the St. Regis Hotel.

Simon, a well-known violist, also leads the award-winning youth ensemble Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, another association about which he’s “extremely proud.” He adds, “Our musicians love to perform with the orchestra, and it shows.”

“Acis and Galatea,” which features the young musicians, young vocal soloists and the San Francisco Choral Society led by Magen Solomon, represents SFCO’s first semi-staged full-length opera production.

The program was selected by orchestra executive director Renay Conlin, a soprano, who, with Simon, arranged a promising cast of rising young opera stars including Natalie Image as Galatea, Kevin Gino as Acis, Isaiah Bell as Damon and Alex Rosen as Polyphemus.

Image is a second-year San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow and Metropolitan Opera National Council Grand Finalist who previously appeared with SFCO, singing “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5” by Villa-Lobos.

Filipino-American tenor Gino, like Image, is alumnus of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and a student of SFCM Voice Department Chair César Ulloa.

Canadian tenor Bell has Handel on the mind, with engagements in “Messiah” and the rarely performed “Resurrection” in the future, and Philharmonia Baroque “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” in the recent past.

California-born bass Rosen has degrees from Peabody Conservatory and Rice University; he is currently enrolled at the Juilliard School.

Acis and Galatea
Presented by San Francisco Chamber Orchestra
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 22
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 463-6710; https://www.thesfco.org/calendar/
Note: Performances also are at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 23 at First United Methodist Church of Palo Alto, 625 Hamilton Ave.; and 3 p.m. Feb. 24 at First Congregational Church of Berkeley, 2345 Channing Way.

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