29 Nov 2013

Early Opera Company: Acis and Galatea

Acis and Galatea was one of Handel’s most popular works, frequently revived in his life time and beyond.

This vibrant, stylish performance by the Early Opera Company, under the direction of Christian Curnyn, left us in no doubt as to why it was one of the few of Handel’s large-scale works to remain popular after the composer’s death. As the drama swiftly unfolded, the stream of glorious melodies rang forth one after the other, spanning the full dramatic gamut from elation to despair, from fury to resignation.

The first performance of the work in 1718 was a private one, at James Brydges’ elegant house, Cannons, where Handel had been fortunate to gain employment following the closure of the King’s Theatre in 1717. Described as a ‘masque’, Acis and Galatea is typical of the short works on pastoral or mythological subjects which represented a home-grown ‘rejoinder’ in the face of the increasing public taste for Italian opera during the early eighteenth century.

The libretto — which was probably co-authored by John Gay, Alexander Pope and John Hughes — is drawn from Dryden’s translation of the thirteenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which appeared in London in 1717. It depicts a romance which unites earthly and immortal realms. The sea nymph Galatea is pining for her beloved, Acis; unbeknown to her, the young shepherd is simultaneously searching for her, anxious to be reunited with his cherished Galatea. The rational, worldly-wise Damon warns Acis that he is neglecting his duties, but the impetuous shepherd heeds not his friend, and eventually the lovers are reunited. However, the arrival of the love-struck monster Polyphemus soon spoils the celebrations, for the giant demands that Galatea transfer her affections to himself; when she refuses and Acis rises in fury against the giant, Polyphemus crushes Acis to death under a boulder. Distraught, Galatea is reminded of her divine powers: she transforms the dead Acis into a stream, thus granting him immortality.

Christian Curnyn launched into the overture with verve, the dynamic, animated playing of the instrumentalists setting the high standard of playing that was sustained throughout the evening and establishing a gripping dramatic momentum. Ensemble was exemplary, and the stylish execution, full of intensity but always elegant, was impressive, as the players painted an Arcadian scene.

The influence of Purcell, especially Dido and Aeneas, is evident in the way in which the chorus is intimately involved in the drama. On the rather crowded Wigmore Hall platform, the five singers were seated behind the instrumentalists, forming a well-blended chorus from which they emerged to take their solo roles, thereby both participating in and reflecting on the action.

The opening chorus instituted the mood of Arcadian serenity, the five voices intermingling with ease and simplicity, initially creating a sense of breadth, before the introduction of some relaxed counterpoint and points of imitation. In contrast, ‘Wretched lovers!’, which commences Act 2 was full of foreboding, and in the unaccompanied lament, ‘Mourn all ye muses’, sung over the body of the slain Acis, the consort of voices was touching but not sentimental, particularly at the line, ‘The gentle Acis is no more’.

The soloists were uniformly excellent.

As Galatea, Sophie Bevan produced a luscious Italianate cantilena, her gorgeous tone resonating sensuously throughout the hall. In ‘Hush ye pretty warbling choir’, her nimble vocal line melded sweetly with the sopranino recorder and upper strings. Handel’s technical challenges presented no problem for Bevan: trills were neat, ornaments not excessive. The recitative which precedes her aria of mourning, ‘Heart, the seat of soft desire’, was poignant, and her subsequent earnest command, ‘Rock, thy hollow womb disclose! The bubbling fountain!’ consoling; while the line ‘Lo! it flows’, suggested a touchingly hesitant joy. In this final aria, the sparkling treble recorders of Ian Wilson and Hannah McLaughin, accompanied by mellifluous, undulating strings, wonderfully evoked the magic of the fountain into which Acis has metamorphosed.

Robert Murray demonstrated a lovely sense of line as Acis. He made much of what is essential quite a weak role dramatically, combining passion and lyricism, both assertive and elegant. ‘Where shall I seek the maiden fair?’ was full of the na├»ve haste of youth; in the second Act, Murray skilfully suggested the shepherd’s growing emotional maturity, shaping the dynamic rises in ‘Love sounds th'alarm’ with intelligence and craftsmanship. His penetrating melody was gratifyingly complemented by Katharina Spreckelsen superb oboe playing.

As Damon, Samuel Boden’s graceful, light tenor provided a pleasing contrast to Murray’s more ardent tone. Boden captured well Damon’s composure and wisdom; ‘Consider, fond Shepard’, in which he attempts to quell Acis’s jealous anger had elegance and presence. Boden sang with sweet, refined tone, especially in an eloquent ‘Consider, fond shepherd’. ‘Would you gain the tender creature’ — an appeal to Polyphemus to essay a gentler line of seduction — would surely have charmed anyone but this unfeeling brute.

To lose one villain was unfortunate, but to lose two could have been potentially disastrous, had Matthew Rose not been available to step into the breach when first Derek Welton, and then his replacement Ashley Riches, were unable to perform the role of Polyphemus. From his first utterance, ‘I rage, I melt, I burn’, Rose filled the auditorium with a rich and profoundly satisfying sound.

Both fearsome and grotesque, in this opening accompanied recitative and throughout the opera he conveyed the essential complexity of the role: are we supposed to laugh at the lovelorn ogre whose gauche compliments and endearments fail to impress, or to protest at his vicious, petulant cruelty which shatters the lovers’ harmony? Probably both; and, in the following aria, ‘O ruddier than the cherry’, Rose conveyed the immensity of the Cyclopean monster’s burning love for Galatea and his fiery hatred for Acis.

Ian Wilson’s delightfully sprightly recorder obbligato reminded us of Ovid’s humorous depiction of Polyphemus as a ferocious goliath who plays an outsized set of shepherd’s pipes! Polyphemus is the dramatic catalyst, disrupting the Elysian bliss, and Rose’s ferocious interjections in the peaceful duet, ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains’, brutally shattered the lovers’ calm avowals of constancy and steadfastness. Curnyn and his performers were justifiably radiant as they acknowledged the appreciative and heartfelt applause. This was a fantastic, engaging performance with not a single weak link. A fabulous evening.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Robert Murray, tenor (as Acis); Sophie Bevan, soprano (as Galatea); Samuel Boden, tenor (as Damon); Matthew Rose, baritone (as Polyphemus); David de Winter, tenor (as Coridon); Christian Curnyn, director, harpsichord. Wigmore Hall, London, 27th November 2013.