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.
Twelve years after Opera Holland Park's first production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, the opera made a welcome return.
The Italianate cloister setting at Iford chimes neatly with Monteverdi’s penultimate opera The Return of Ulysses, as the setting cannot but bring to mind those early days of the musical genre. The world of commercial public opera had only just dawned with the opening of the Teatro San Cassiano in Venice in 1637 and for the first time opera became open to all who could afford a ticket, rather than beholden to the patronage of generous princes. Monteverdi took full advantage of the new stage and at the age of 73 brought all his experience of more than 30 years of opera-writing since his ground-breaking L’Orfeo (what a pity we have lost all those works) to the creation of two of his greatest pieces, Ulysses and then his final masterpiece, Poppea.
Once again, we find ourselves thanking an unrepresentable being for Welsh National Opera’s commitment to its mission. It is a sad state of affairs when a season that includes both Boulevard Solitude and Moses und Aron is considered exceptional, but it is - and is all the more so when one contrasts such seriousness of purpose with the endless revivals of La traviata which, Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding, seem to occupy so much of the Royal Opera’s effort. That said, if the Royal Opera has not undertaken what would be only its second ever staging of Schoenberg’s masterpiece - the first and last was in 1965, long before most of us were born! - then at least it has engaged in a very welcome ‘WNO at the Royal Opera House’ relationship, in which we in London shall have the opportunity to see some of the fruits of the more adventurous company’s endeavours.
If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro, you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where Des Moines Metro Opera festival has devised a heady production of Le Comte Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.
Composed during just a few weeks of the summer of 1926, Janáček’s Slavonic-text Glagolitic Mass was first performed in Brno in December 1927. During the rehearsals for the premiere - just 3 for the orchestra and one 3-hour rehearsal for the whole ensemble - the composer made many changes, and such alterations continued so that by the time of the only other performance during Janáček’s lifetime, in Prague in April 1928, many of the instrumental (especially brass) lines had been doubled, complex rhythmic patterns had been ‘ironed-out’ (the Kyrie was originally in 5/4 time), a passage for 3 off-stage clarinets had been cut along with music for 3 sets of pedal timpani, and choral passages were also excised.
With the conclusion of the ROH 2013-14 season on Saturday evening - John Copley’s 40-year old production of La Bohème bringing down the summer curtain - the sun pouring through the gleaming windows of the Floral Hall was a welcome invitation to enjoy a final treat. The Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Showcase offered singers whom we have admired in minor and supporting roles during the past year the opportunity to step into the spotlight.
Many words have already been spent - not all of them on musical matters - on Richard Jones’s Glyndebourne production of Der Rosenkavalier, which last night was transported to the Royal Albert Hall. This was the first time at the Proms that Richard Strauss’s most popular opera had been heard in its entirety and, despite losing two of its principals in transit from Sussex to SW1, this semi-staged performance offered little to fault and much to admire.
Twenty years ago stage director Christopher Alden introduced Rossini’s then forgotten comedy to Southern California audiences in a production that is still remembered. In Aix Alden has revisited this complex work that many critics now consider Rossini’s greatest comedy.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
That’s A Winter’s Journey and A Night of Mourning for metteurs-en-scène William Kentridge (South Africa) and Katie Mitchell (Great Britain), completing the clean sweep of English language stage directors for the Aix Festival productions this year.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
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 naïve 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.
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.