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Mary Bevan as Galatea [Photo by Rob Coles]
30 Jul 2013

Something Rotten in the State of Arcady?

One can only imagine the small-ad: “exquisite small italianate water garden wishes to meet pastoral “little opera” in intimate setting, small cast and orchestra ideal, with music of delightful poise and accessibility.

Something Rotten in the State of Arcady?

A review by Sue Loder

Above: Mary Bevan as Galatea

Photos by Rob Coles


Nymphs and shepherds preferred. Giants only by invitation”. However, as with small ads, you don’t always get what you expect.........of which more anon.

The second surprise about Iford Arts’ current sell-out run of Handel’s Acis & Galatea is that they haven’t presented it since way back in the year 2000 - and if ever a place called out for a certain production it is the pastoral paradise that is Iford Manor with its garden designed by Peto and mock-classical cloister micro-theatre. Handel showed early his skills at word-painting, even in the “foreign” language of English, and the elegantly melodic lines must have equally perfectly suited the piece’s first performance at Cannons, Edgware, the country home of James Brydges, later 1st Duke of Chandos, for whom he wrote the music for Acis in the year 1717-18.

Much has been written about the origins of the libretto (John Gay, with contributions by Alexander Pope and others) and how in fact the story is a mix of myth and fabrication which has caught the public’s imagination down through the centuries. No other Handel opera has been so constantly on the stage and in the repertory. In his lifetime alone it is recorded that Acis was performed no less than fifty times - an amazing number for those days. Of course the length (a modest 90 minutes or so), small forces required (4 or 5 soloists depending on version, with equally small chorus), and little in the way of big scene-changes might have contributed to this longevity and popularity but I doubt they were the deciding factors. The sheer beauty of Handel’s melting melodies and hummable tunes must be of equal importance as the many tuneful arias follow fast upon each other with little in the way of recitative.

The Sunday night performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company and soloists certainly did not disappoint, even if the English weather kept everyone on their toes - after all, bubbling brooks need to be replenished even in Arcady and the River Frome is close by a garden full of its own tumbling waters. As before here, the tiny performance space brought out the best in terms of creativity and imagination on the part of director Pia Furtado and designer Georgia Lowe and this is where the evening took an unexpected turn: yes, there were elegant costumes suggesting 18th century pastoral fun and games with silk stockings, masks and frock coats - but why does sensible, pragmatic Damon (bit of kill-joy usually) have his faced glittered like a New Romantic of the 1980s? And why is he the only one wearing bright red among a throng of cream and white? And why is one of the elegantly dressed ladies of the chorus obviously a man in drag? And why does Galatea, our demi-goddess water sprite, appear caged like a pole dancer in a sleazy “gentlemen’s” club? As the story of poor Acis’ doomed love progresses we realise that this production isn’t going to give us that nice warm cuddly feeling come the end that we might expect. No, Furtado’s vision is very different and refreshingly so. In this version of Arcady there’s something rather nasty lurking in the river bank and it isn’t just that wicked lustful giant Polythemus; no, it’s all choreographed like a sex-show in the aforementioned club and although poor helpless Galatea manages to transform the dead Acis into a little stream, that’s about all she can do - for in the final scene she is returned to her gilded cage to be ogled and pawed over once again. Is this a post-feminist statement? Or just a witty imaginative take on a very old story? Come the end, after applause long and loud for the excellent cast and musicians, each member of the audience seemed to have a different view and maybe that’s exactly what was intended.

Ben Hulett as Acis, Chris Turner as Damon.gifBen Hulett as Acis and Chris Turner as Damon

Galatea was sung by the excellent young soprano Mary Bevan who used her agile voice with confidence and colour, and indeed some powerful emotion such as in “must I my Acis still bemoan....” whilst nimbly leaping in and out of wells, in various degrees of undress. If we missed some of the more technical demands which Handel places on his soprano - the trills in her opening aria “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire” - were somewhat lacking, this talented young performer made up for it with affecting characterisation and smooth production.

Tenor Ben Hulett is another young British singer on the way up and the role of Acis certainly showed off his range with some limpidly elegant singing at the top of his voice which nailed the essence of Handel’s writing for this most sympathetic of characters. His “Love in her eyes sits playing” was a bewitching moment, but the darker elements of his voice also worked well in the second half. Like Bevan, he is due to make his debut at the Royal Opera House soon and with singing like this, he should make a real impact in the lighter repertory.

Our not-so-friendly giant Polythemus was beautifully cast in the form of bass Lukas Jakobski whose impressive frame of six feet plus several inches and shaven head brought the required dramatic impact onto the scene. He nicely caught the essence of giant-ness with a rolling wide-spread gait and slowed-down body movements whilst his rich bass coped nimbly with the faster passages such as that old favourite of Victorian parlours “O ruddier than the cherry”.

Last but not least of the soloists was our slightly surprising Damon, ably sung by tenor Christopher Turner with some interesting stage business not usually associated with this role - one got the idea that he was perhaps some kind of Master of Ceremonies in this over-heated erotic world of myth and legend, rather than just the voice of reason. The idea certainly worked well and suggested an interesting alternative structure for the drama. His “Consider, fond shepherd” was particularly well-sung and in its inflections suggested more than an entirely altruistic motive.

The chorus and dancers, seven in total, made excellent use of the tiny space available and only occasionally seemed to overwhelm the soloists physically - there’s a finite limit at Iford as to how many bodies can work effectively in that cloister. They all worked and sang well as a company, coping efficiently with the fast costume changes imposed on poor Galatea (mainly stripping off her clothes it seemed), nipping in and out of the exits as required and only occasionally treading on any feet incautiously left out by patrons.

Christian Curnyn has had a good year with award-winning recordings, and his Early Opera Company goes from strength to strength both here and abroad with composers as varied as Monteverdi, Mozart, Britten, Cavalli and of course Handel. Working with a force so much smaller than normal here at Iford must be both a challenge and a delight, and it shows. Handel’s music is second nature of course to this band but Curnyn never lets that familiarity roll over into routine - lively and detailed playing is expected and achieved.

This was certainly an Acis & Galatea to remember and as the gardens emptied, and lights dimmed in the little cloister, the only sound left was that of the “gentle murm’ring stream” below, winding through the pastures of Wiltshire. And maybe the sound of a weeping water-sprite, back again in her gilded cage.

Sue Loder

G.F. Handel: Acis & Galatea. A New Iford Festival Opera Production. Libretto: John Gay. Sung in English. Iford Festival Opera, England. July 28th 2013.

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