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Reviews

<em>Acis and Galatea</em>, ENO, Lilian Baylis House
13 Jun 2018

ENO's Acis and Galatea at Lilian Baylis House

The shepherds and nymphs are at play! It’s end-of-the-year office-party time in Elysium. The bean-bags, balloons and banners - ‘Work Hard, Play Harder’ - invite the weary workers of Mountain Media to let their hair down, and enter the ‘Groves of Delights and Crystal Fountains’.

Acis and Galatea, ENO, Lilian Baylis House

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: ENO, Acis and Galatea

Photo credit: Dani Harvey

 

There’s nothing very pastoral, though, about ENO’s Acis and Galatea which, as the Coliseum is hosting a series of summer revenue raisers ( Opera North’s Kiss Me, Kate arrives next week), is being performed at ENO’s rehearsal space, Lilian Baylis House. The only ‘greenery’ in director Sarah Tipple’s hyper-active production, is the astro turf beneath the feet of the orchestra, seated to one side in a mirror-clad grotto which does its best to hint at leafy groves and trickling streams.

Designer Justin Nardella’s set presents a panoply of party-props - a livid yellow fancy-dress box (though the merry-makers’ Hawaiian shirts, wellies, out-size spectacles and outlandish head-gear are surely ‘fancy’ enough), beach balls, plastic dinosaurs, inflatable unicorns, and the like. And, should the ‘hedonism’ over-heat, the party-planner - a nerdy type, who wanders in from time to time, checking his itinerary on an i-Pad - has ensured that they have a convenient cool-drinks dispenser at their disposal.

The revellers are social media techies, and these self-regarding selfie-takers are kept doubly entertained as they watch their own carousing and cavorting unfold via four corner-stationed, huge i-Phones. During the party-games, Galatea is ‘crowned’ Queen and draped in ermine. As she and Acis canoodle, ‘O happy we!’ the members of the ENO Chorus sing, in hearty and joyful voice, as they swig beer, dance with unselfconscious abandon, and flop on bean-bags for a time-out. Indeed, perhaps they’d swigged a few too many bottles for the choric cries of glee drifted a bit behind conductor Nicholas Ansdell-Evans’ swift beat.

Ella-Kirkpatrick-Michael-Burke-Adam-Sullivan.jpgElla Kirkpatrick, Michael Burke, Adam-Sullivan and ENO Chorus. Photo credit: Dani Harvey.

There’s nothing wrong at all with Sarah Tipple’s decision to eschew Ovid’s pastoral paradise and John Gay’s satirical lampooning, and to present the mythical romance as a slight tale of modern-day merry- and mischief-making. After all, Acis and Galatea began life as an entertainment for a private party, commissioned c. 1718-20 by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, to amuse the guests at Cannons, the stately home on his grand Middlesex estate. And, in contrast to Martin Parr’s production of the opera at St John’s Smith Square, during this year’s London Handel Festival, at least this time the balloons stayed firmed affixed to the walls and ceiling, sparing us an explosive accompaniment.

But, as I noted in my review of the LHF performance, while there is ‘much irony in Gay’s text, with its parodic echoes of nonsensical Arcadian conceits and interplay of ‘high’ and ‘low’ […] the challenge is to distinguish between, and marry, textual levity and musical earnestness’. And, it’s this unity and balance between partying and pathos that Tipple doesn’t succeed in achieving.

When the party ends in the inevitable punch-up, and the Chorus laments the death of Acis, the party-planner rushes in, puts Acis in the recovery position and hastily commences CPR while the stunned revellers prove not sufficiently shocked to refrain from recording the victim’s last breaths for their Facebook page. Though it was a welcome moment of tender stillness after all the manic agitation, the opera’s ‘high-point’, the choric lament ‘Mourn all ye muses’, which is sung over the body of the slain Acis, lacked gravitas and true sentiment; the poignant simplicity of “The gentle Acis is no more” seemed merely glib.

Lucy-Hall-Alexander-Sprague-c-Dani-Harvey.jpgLucy Hall (Galatea) and Alexander Sprague (Acis). Photo credit: Dani Harvey.

There was some fine playing and singing, though, not least from the ENO Chorus, though the traverse set-up made it hard for the choral and instrumental groups to blend. Alexander Sprague, as Acis, had plenty of spring and slice in his pleasing tenor, perfect for this confident charmer dressed in glitter-red sneakers and cool shades who was prone to showing off his press-up prowess mid-aria. Indeed, perhaps this Acis was a bit too self-regarding for at times it was hard to believe in the sincerity of his love - a distrust which was exacerbated when the cynical Damon rolled a cigarette during Acis’s avowal of love.

Lucy Hall’s soprano is vibrant, full of rippling colours, relaxes and blossoms as it rises. She was terrific as the flirtatious Galatea, whose cocked eyebrows suggested was she was quite tempted by Polyphemus’ ardent attentions.

Bradley-Smith-c-Dani-Harvey.jpgBradley Smith (Damon). Photo credit: Dani Harvey.

Bradley Smith was a good foil to Sprague. His tenor has a softer edge, just right for party-pooper Damon, demure in denim, though his singing was not always sufficiently agile in the coloratura passages to keep up with the terrifically bright and brisk playing of the instrumentalists from the ENO orchestra, who were whipped through their paces with gleeful lightness by Ansdell-Evans.

Though this Polyphemus was no monstrous Cyclops, Matthew Durkan injected some beguiling darkness into his baritone. It was a shame that the vocal menace was rather undercut by the petulant antics that Tipple had him perform. When Galatea rejected his regal advances, he tore off his cloak in a fit of pique and stamped like a three-year-old on his plastic crown. Worn out by his toddler tantrum, Polythemus threw himself down on a pink pillow and promptly fell asleep, affording Acis and Damon the opportunity to creep back in, paint his face with marker pen and lipstick, and strap him into a lurid green bra.

Tipple thus denied this Polyphemus any dignity, and we did not feel the immensity of his burning love, only his peevish anger. She also struggled to squeeze the opera’s ending into her concept. For, in Ovid’s tale, when the jealous Polyphemus has crushed Acis to death under a boulder, the distraught Galatea fortuitously recalls her divine powers and transforms the dead Acis into a stream, thus granting him immortality. Clearly there could be no such transfiguration by water of this dead party-goer. The solution? A stream of ‘pictures of a life’ on Galatea’s Instagram account and a flowing conga-chain of dancers. With the prone body of Acis before us, this lieto fine left slightly a nasty taste.

Claire Seymour

Acis - Alexander Sprague, Galatea - Lucy Hall, Polyphemus - Matthew Durkan, Damon - Bradley Smith; Director - Sarah Tipple, Conductor - Nicholas Ansdell-Evans, Designer - Justin Nardella, Associate costume designer - Sarah Hamza, Lighting designer - Jennifer Rose, Movement director- Gemma Payne, Members of ENO Orchestra and Chorus.

Lilian Baylis House, London; Monday 11th June 2018.

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