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Reviews

<em>Acis and Galatea</em>: London Handel Festival, St John’s Smith Square
21 Mar 2018

Acis and Galatea: 2018 London Handel Festival

Katie Hawks makes quite a claim for Handel’s Acis and Galatea when, in her programme article, she describes it as the composer’s ‘most perfect work’. Surely, one might feel, this is a somewhat hyperbolic evaluation of a 90-minute pastoral masque, or serenade, based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which has its origins in a private entertainment?

Acis and Galatea: London Handel Festival, St John’s Smith Square

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Lucy Page (Galatea)

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

However, in the light of this accomplished performance at St John’s Smith Square, one of first events of this year’s London Handel Festival, perhaps such enthusiasm can be indulged. After all, Winton Dean described the final aria, which expresses the transfiguring effect of Galatea’s love and loss, as ‘one of the most sublime things Handel ever wrote’ ( Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios). The work was popular in Handel’s day, and remains so, judging by the capacious and appreciative audience at St John’s.

This year’s festival is titled Handel in London. Since Handel, who settled in the capital in 1712 and became a naturalised citizen fifteen years later, spent most of his working-life in London there are plentiful works from which to choose. But, the Festival also aims to explore the wider social context of Georgian London, and Acis and Galatea is a good place to start. For, it not only represents the young Handel’s attempts to enchant native audiences suspicious of foreign art forms and styles, but also, through the comic satire of John Gay’s libretto which abounds with contemporary references, throws light on the cultural politics of the period.

Commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, Acis and Galatea had its first performance sometime between 1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private entertainments. Gay adapted Dryden’s translation of Ovid and threw in a sprinkle of quotations from and allusions to John Hughes and Alexander Pope.

Ignoring the advice of the pragmatic Damon, two besotted lovers - shepherd Acis and sea nymph Galatea - relish their pastoral seclusion. Their bucolic happiness is, sadly, but brief, brusquely disturbed by the smitten cyclops, Polyphemus, whose raging jealousy and rampant passion have tragic consequences. Fortunately, Galatea’s love effects a divine metamorphosis: the murdered Acis, whom Polymethus has crushed with a rock, is transformed into a crystal stream which fountains from the rock.

Under Laurence Cummings’ elegant direction, the London Handel Orchestra and the nineteen singers of Pegasus complemented the vocal solos stylishly. The orchestral colourings were shrewdly highlighted by Cummings, with David Miller’s theorbo contributions providing particularly well-judged rhetorical enhancement. Tempos were swift enough to conjure lightness of spirit, but never too fast for the emotional import to be lost.

Cummings was willing to let the music speak for itself, nowhere more so than in the final hushed chorus, ‘Mourn all ye muses’, the graded diminuendo of which evoked a tender but profound Purcellian pathos, equal to the close of Dido and Aeneas upon which Handel draws. Similarly, the interlacing of the stricken Galatea’s pained questions - ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan/ Inglorious, crush’d beneath that Stone … Must the lovely charming Youth/ Die for his Constancy and truth?’ - the oboe’s plaintive melodic echoes, and the consoling choral responses - ‘Cease, cease, Galatea, cease to grieve’ - was beautifully shaped. And, the orchestral dotted rhythms that represent Acis’ ‘resurrection’ and continuing presence in the burbling stream were intimated with delicacy. Handel certainly doesn’t come much better than this.

As Galatea, Lucy Page sang with a fresh, clean soprano, sweeping sweetly across the registers though not always projecting strongly. Nick Pritchard’s tenor is rich and refined; Acis displayed both romantic ardour and, in his martial aria in Act 2, heroic potential.

Edward Grint made an impressive entrance through the red curtains behind the instrumentalists, bristling with fury. But, even in Polymethus’ first recitative, ‘I rage, I rage, I rage, I melt, I burn’, Grint’s bass balanced ballast and beauty - ‘I melt’ was beguilingly languorous: it was clear why the Cyclops fancied his chances with the nubile nymph. With paradoxical elegance, Grint negotiated the ungainly vocal contours and stuttering breathless which so often characterises the giant’s melodies, Polymethus’ unrest being sweetly countered by the obbligato ‘flauto’ (Catherine Latham, recorder) in the well-known ‘O ruddier than the cherry’. Similarly, the leaping octaves - ‘Torture, fury, rage, despair’ - with which the cyclops interrupts the lovers’ mournful duet were cleanly articulated and prickled with frustration.

Tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado, whom I have not previously heard, displayed a pleasingly mellow tenor and relaxed stage presence. Damon’s second aria, ‘Consider fond shepherd’, was beautifully sung, the top light but true.

This was a staged performance and as, upon entering St John’s, I wheezed through the eddying dry-ice smoke in a haze of lurid pink and green, I had slight misgivings about what might be in store. In the event, the pastoral partying was of a tame, traditional nature. Though Miles Fisher’s lighting provided a rainbow of hues from satanic crimson to elysian gold, the design was quaint rather than quirky. A criss-cross canopy of silken scarves foreshadowed the concluding watery transfiguration and green helium balloons bobbed over the orchestral players (obscuring the singers when they were positioned at the rear), whose music-stands were festooned with Arcadian foliage. Alongside conventional pastoral apparel, Galatea’s dress was a briny green; Polymethus’ fur conveyed his brutishness.

St John’s is no easy venue in which to present staged works. The lovely acoustic is tempered by poor sightlines and intrusive pillars. Director Martin Parr sought to overcome the limitations by employing varied entrance points, shifting soloists from left to right and moving the chorus around the venue, including the gallery. Unfortunately, Parr repeatedly instructed his soloists to deliver their arias from a sitting or prone position, thus rendering the protagonists invisible to all but those seated in the first few front-rows.

The result was that this was less of ‘staging’ of Acis and Galatea than a performance with gimmicks. Laurence Cummings was drawn into the fun. First evicted from the harpsichord by Damon, his score tossed into the air, then required to provide the gallant Acis with his sword, Cummings also turned to the nave to give the chorus their cue to release a shower of balloons from the gallery during the end-of-Act 1 chorus, ‘O happy we’ (some in the audience seemed more interested in batting the balloons back and forth than in listening to the musical accompaniment to the air-borne ballet). As the two-Act serenade was performed without a break, there was no opportunity for a balloon-gathering foray; the result was repeated explosive bursting throughout Act 2, painfully disrupting moments of emotional weight, not least Damon’s Act 2 aria and Galatea’s final aria of transformation.

My reservations had begun when it seemed that the sopranino recorders had not been not trusted to evoke the ‘warbling quire’ which Galatea dispatches to fetch her beloved Acis, and during the nymph’s plea, the chorus dangled and waggled paper ducks from fishing rods. As I recalled childhood visits to fairgrounds and endeavours to ‘hook the duck’, the mannered order of Arcadia seemed far away.

I’m probably guilty of humourlessness and many undoubtedly enjoyed the antics. Admittedly, there is much irony in Gay’s text, with its parodic echoes of nonsensical Arcadian conceits and interplay of ‘high’ and ‘low’. But, to me, Handel’s music is sincere, and the challenge is to distinguish between, and marry, textual levity and musical earnestness. Interestingly, when Handel presented a London performance of Acis and Galatea in 1732 it was announced that ‘There will be no action on the stage’. As Hawks observes, the serenade is ‘no shallow soap opera, but a deep exploration of emotions and psychology’. Fortunately the musicians and singers concurred.

The London Handel Festival continues until 17th April 2018.

Claire Seymour

London Handel Festival 2018
Handel: Acis and Galatea HWV49

Acis - Nick Pritchard, Galatea - Lucy Page, Polyphemus - Edward Grint, Damon - Jorge Navarro Colorado; Director - Martin Parr, Conductor - Laurence Cummings, Costume designer - Charlotte Epsiner, Lighting designer - Jack Weir, London Handel Orchestra, Pegasus Choir.

St John’s Smith Square, London; Monday 19th March 2018.

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