12 Feb 2020

A refined Acis and Galatea at Cadogan Hall

The first performance of Handel's two-act Acis and Galatea - variously described as a masque, serenata, pastoral or ‘little opera’ - took place in the summer of 1718 at Cannons, the elegant residence of James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos.

It was at this estate near Edgware, north-west of London, that the year before Handel had gained employment among the group of musicians that Brydges maintained to perform in his chapel and at private entertainments.

To celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2019, Harry Christophers and The Sixteen released a recording of Acis and Galatea , performed - in accord with what are thought to be the circumstances of the work’s premiere - by an intimate ensemble of just five singers and nine instrumentalists. A year later, The Sixteen have embarked upon a mini-tour of the work, beginning here at Cadogan Hall with further concert performances to follow in Chichester, Derby and Warwick .

The Sixteen’s 2019 disc won the Preis Der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik Best Listen Award; and, at Cadogan Hall, one could understand why. Handel’s beautiful melodies flowed one after the other, sung with mellifluence, elegance and good taste by the five vocal soloists. The nine instrumentalists from the Orchestra of the Sixteen played with similar graciousness of style. The continuo ensemble - cellist Joseph Crouch, theorbo player David Miller, harpist Frances Kelly and harpsichordist Alastair Ross - provided sensitively detailed support. The many instrumental obbligatos conversed engagingly with the voices, Catherine Latham’s sweet piping unheeding of Galatea’s plea to “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!”; Hannah McLaughlin’s oboe warmly conveying the heat of passion within the eager Acis’ breast; Kelly’s harp embodying the glow of Galatea’s love when reunited with her smitten shepherd.

Arranged symmetrically - the violinists (leader Sarah Sexton and Daniel Edgar) standing stage-right, balanced by the continuo group stage-left - with Christophers dancing lightly on his toes at their centre, the musicians formed a ear-pleasing consort in front of the seated singers at the rear of the stage. So, what could there be not to like?

Well, while the musical performances could not be faulted, I missed the wit, drama and emotion which is present in both John Gay’s libretto and Handel’s score. In Grove, Stanley Sadie speculates: ‘Whether or not it was originally fully staged, given in some kind of stylized semi-dramatic form or simply performed as a concert work is uncertain; local tradition holds that it was given in the open air on the terraces overlooking the garden (the recent discovery of piping to supply an old fountain, suitable for the closing scene, might fancifully be invoked as support).’ And, when Acis and Galatea was presented in a revised three-act version (incorporating musical material from Handel’s cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (Naples, 1708) with words by Nicola Giuvo) at the King’s Theatre in June 1732, the advertisement read, ‘There will be no Action on the Stage, but the Scene will represent, in a Picturesque Manner, a rural Prospect, with Rocks, Groves, Fountains and Grotto’s; amongst which will be disposed a Chorus of Nymphs and Shepherds, Habits, and every other Decoration suited to the Subject’.

At Cadogan Hall, we had neither a ‘rural Prospect’ of Arcadian serenity nor any ‘Action’. The singers undertook, in turn, a decorous progress to the front of the stage to sing their arias, then retreated to resume their positions in the Chorus. It was all very polite and tasteful: ‘courtly’, said one of my colleagues. But, there was little sense of the emotions or psychologies that the work expresses and explores. When Acis and Galatea stood side by side to celebrate their reunion with the joyous, bubbling cries of “Happy we!”, they scarce looked at each other, their apparent indifference surely at odds with their blissful avowals, “Thou all my bliss, thou all my joy!” Similarly, though Polyphemus stood nearby, the audience not the ogre was the recipient of Galatea’s command, “Go, monster, bid some other guest/ I loathe the host, I loathe the feast”? And, because the monstrous one did indeed beat a retreat, Coridon’s implorations to his master to “Softly, gently, kindly treat her” were sung to no-one in particular.

But, if there was dramatic restraint, there was also musical refinement. In ensemble, the five voices blended well - just occasionally one of the tenor lines rose overly to the fore - and the collective voices captured the expressive contrasts between the pastoral peace at the start, singing with relaxed expansiveness, “O, the pleasure of the plains!”, and the foreboding atmosphere at the start of Act 2: “Wretched lovers!” The singers moved as a group to the front, in order to plead for all the “muses” and “swains” to grieve Acis’ demise, and though there was no prone figure of the slain Acis over which to mourn, they captured both the tenderness and gravity: “the gentle Acis is no more!”

The virginal purity of Grace Davidson’s soprano made this Galatea a truly other-worldly sea nymph. There was perhaps a limited range of colour, such as would imbue Galatea’s excited image of the dove, “Billing, cooing/ Panting, wooing”, with requisite passion; but Davidson’s exquisite sense of line and her tasteful, gentle ornamentation - a graceful appoggiatura or two, an occasional trill to ruffle the nymph’s serenity - were more than recompense.

Acis is a rather dull dude, and Jeremy Budd seemed a little reserved initially. I didn’t sense Acis’ na├»ve impetuousness in “Where shall I seek the charming fair?”, and the repetitions of the “Love” which “in her eyes sits playing” and “on her lips is straying” might have been more pointed - the mood was jaunty rather than sensuous. But the tenor’s tone was beautifully lucid and softly sweet. As Damon, tenor Mark Dobell conveyed a stronger sense of presence, and the sensible swain’s Act 2 aria, “Consider, fond shepherd”, was persuasively earnest.

Polyphemus shatters the lovers’ Elysian idyll and it was when bass Stuart Young took to the forestage that there was an injection of the sort of dramatic impetus and characterisation that had thus far been lacking. Singing from memory, Young really did “rage - melt - burn” and in “O ruddier than the cherry” he upset the pastoral serenity, singing with strong tone, excellent diction and well-judged rhythmic freedom to suggest the “raging flame” of desire within his heart. Young captured both the ridiculousness of Polyphemus’ hyperbolic passion - Latham’s sopranino recorder adding its ironic commentary - and, in a beautifully coloured “Cease to beauty to be suing”, the monster’s frustration and pathos.

Gay’s libretto balances the ‘high’ with the ‘low’; and in Handel’s music there is wit and irony, as well as deep emotion. If both the levity and the intensity were a little lacking on this occasion, then there was musical earnestness and expressive beauty. A good listen, indeed.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Acis and Galatea

Galatea - Grace Davidson, Acis - Jeremy Budd, Damon - Mark Dobell, Coridon - Simon Berridge, Polyphemus - Stuart Young, Conductor - Harry Christophers, members of the Orchestra of The Sixteen.

Cadogan Hall, London; Tuesday 11th February 2020.