(London Handel Orchestra at St John’s Smith Square, 19 March 2018)
This year’s London Handel Festival kicked off with this pastoral drama from 1718 which, described in the programme as ‘Handel’s most perfect work’, had a lot to live up to. It was commissioned by the Earl of Carnarvon, who was also the patron of Handel’s Chandos Anthems and his Esther, and its genesis as a pastoral masque is reflected in its brevity – a mere ninety minutes – and its plot stuffed with nymphs, shepherdess and happy rustics. I’m slightly allergic to pastoral operas, which I can’t take seriously, but I have to admit that the music in Acis and Galatea is beautiful – no matter how many times the English libretto made me wince. Charmingly staged in St John’s Smith Square, and performed by a strong young cast, this was a very Baroque evening out.
The story of Acis and Galatea derives from Greek myth and, I think, has several valuable morals. For example, if a cyclops is wooing you (or your girlfriend), it might be wise not to upset him. On the other hand, if you’re in love with a beautiful young woman, it might be advisable not to stalk her and then squash her boyfriend under a rock. Just a thought. Such behaviour probably won’t get you very far. But hindsight is a wonderful thing.
Naturally, the plot is brief. A chorus of jovial peasants sings about the joys of the simple life (this appears to be the Golden Age, where no one actually had to work, but could ‘Dance and sport the hours away‘). They are joined by the lovely Galatea (Lucy Page), on whom they all look indulgently, for she is in love with the shepherd Acis (Nick Pritchard). He’s been off somewhere – hopefully looking after his sheep, as the work ethic seems rather lacking in this bucolic paradise – but when he returns, they sing a pretty duet about how happy they are. But hark! What is that distant sound of approaching doom? Good heavens, it’s the cyclops Polyphemus (Edward Grint), who is also enamoured of Galatea! He hopes to win her love by playing on his pipes, but after singing a love song he’s disturbed to see her running away (and it’s not just because of the awkward words: does any woman really want to be compared to ‘kidlings blithe and merry‘?).
You have to feel for Polyphemus. All right, so he’s a giant one-eyed monster, but that’s not his fault, and so far we’ve only seen him trying to win this nymph’s love and being rather cruelly spurned. He tempts her with his herds, his grapes and fruit-trees, but she accuses him of eating children and announces that she loathes him. A bit harsh. Acis, who seems to have forgotten that he’s a puny shepherd up against a giant, decides to challenge Polyphemus – but is persuaded to desist by his chum Damon (Jorge Navarro Colorado), who obviously has more of a brain. As Acis and Galatea sing another lovely duet confirming their love, Polyphemus’s fury breaks loose and he hurls a massive rock at Acis (‘Fly swift, thou massy ruin, fly! Die, presumptuous Acis, die!‘ It’s these rhymes that make the libretto so special). Acis is squashed flat, which is a bit of a downer, but because this is a myth, Galatea transforms him into a river and so the librettists manage, gamely, to drag a ‘happy’ ending out of it.
St John’s doesn’t often stage its operas and so it was rather thrilling to find the hall hazed with dry ice and draped with gauze, the stage bedecked by green balloons to suggest trees. The chorus of jovial peasants (who included the Festival Director, Samir Savant) were dressed in loose blouses and voluminous breeches or skirts; Galatea herself was in a sumptuous gown with lace-trimmed cuffs; and Acis and Damon were in an 18th-century approximation of ‘noble rustic’ costume. Everything was very interactive: Laurence Cummings, who was directing from the harpsichord, joined in with the singing now and then; and, at the end of Act 1, piles of green balloons were dropped on the audience from the gallery. This was great fun, of course, but it did mean that the poignant moments of Act 2 were sometimes spoiled by the retorts of bursting balloons.
Lucy Page’s Galatea was sweet and innocent, given to singing with the birds of the hedgerow in the manner of a Disney princess before the fact (Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!). Her voice was clear and bright, and blended well with that of Nick Pritchard’s Acis. I’ve seen Pritchard several times now and he really does continue to get stronger every time. Here he played the role entirely straight, which is admirable when his first aria consists of asking the little dickey-birds if they know where his beloved is (Where shall I seek the charming fair?). His voice is certainly well suited to the romantic roles, because he sang a very pretty love-aria, Love in her eyes sitsplaying, which merged the jolly and the lovelorn very nicely. I was especially impressed with the tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado, whom I hadn’t come across before. His voice is a bit more powerful and more richly coloured than Pritchard’s: his role is small, but he really made it count.
Edward Grint was the singer I knew best, and his Polyphemus was reliably robust and impressive. The character has such an ample build-up at the beginning of Act 2 that he really has to deliver, and Grint certainly did so. His Polyphemus swaggered on with an eye patch, swathed in an animal skin – actually looking more like a rugged and roguish Sicilian banditto than a cyclops, if we’re going to be pedantic, but never mind. And to round off, I should commend the chorus Pegasus, who have quite a lot to do here both in the typical Baroque sense of ‘choruses’, and in a more classical sense, as they comment on the action and signal the changes of mood from romantic to sober.
It was a very enjoyable start to the season, with pretty music, beautiful costumes and a well-choreographed staging. I can’t say that it’s won my heart away from the historical tales of political machination, and I would choose Xerxes or Giulio Cesare over Acis and Galatea without hesitation, but it was definitely charming. Light, airy and sweet, like the best kind of macaroon, it sent us out into the night wreathed in smiles.
Incidentally, the photos illustrating this post come from an earlier performance of this production, at Cannons itself, the house where the opera was first performed in 1718.