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Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca at Wigmore Hall

Handel’s English pastoral masque Acis and Galatea was commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, and had it 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.

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: laBarocca, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Sonia Prina (contralto)

Photo credit: Javier Teatro Real

 

But, this wasn’t the first time that Handel had turned his attention to the Ovidian love-triangle between the mortal shepherd Acis, the sea-nymph Galatea and the Cyclops Polyphemus who, in a jealous rage, kills Acis, prompting Galatea to transform her beloved into an immortal river spirit. The allegorical tale was also the subject of the 1708 serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo which Handel composed in Naples in 1708 for Aurora Sanseverino, Duchess d’Laurenzana as a wedding gift for her nephew, Duke Tolomeo d’Alvito.

The intimate, decorous Wigmore Hall was a fitting setting for this performance by Roberta Mameli, Sonia Prina and Luigi De Donato with the Italian Baroque specialist ensemble, laBarocca, conducted by Ruben Jais. Founded in Milan in 2008, the sixteen-piece ensemble play with a light-textured vitality which here enhanced the delicacy and economy of many of Handel’s aria accompaniments, some of which employ continuo alone while others develop beautifully expressive duets between the solo voices and obbligato instruments. Jais decreed a prevailing gentleness which could then be dramatically enlivened by striking dynamic contrasts, occasional gritty textures and instrumental colour.

Handel’s serenata reveals not only the young composer’s confident appreciation of the requirements and expectations of the form, but also the considerable skill with which he could characterise in music. The role of the male lover, Aci, was written for a soprano castrato, as was the convention, with Galatea performed by a lower female voice. Here Roberta Mameli’s light, bright soprano was perfectly complemented by Sonia Prina’s dark, dense but pliable contralto. In their opening duet - which followed segue from an interpolated Sinfonia (Handel’s score provides no instrumental prelude) - Mameli’s brightness and ‘lift’ captured Aci’s optimism and joy as the day breaks and a serene sky seems to promise the lovers future joy, while Prina thoughtfully supported the higher line, shaping the phrases sensitively to convey Galatea’s passion.

Mameli and oboist Nicola Barbagli intertwined and echoed sublimely in ‘Che non può la gelosia’, their silky running triplets in thirds communicating the shepherd’s unrest when he first learns of Polifemo’s jealousy, strengthened by some thumbing bass line accents. When Aci prepares himself to do battle with the Cyclops, Handel surprising scores his aria for ‘solo cembalo’, even though librettist Nicola Guiva has supplied him with images of eagles’ talons ripping into a snake’s nest inspiring violent and venomous vengeance in the latter. Perhaps he wished us to foreground such imagery without distraction? Here, Jais employed the harpsichord alone but, as Mameli projected forcefully (sometimes a little too much so, with adverse effect on the intonation) the relationship between the voice and the rather fragile, rapid harpsichord part became loosened.

MAMELI-roberta.jpgRoberta Mameli (soprano). Image courtesy of Allegorica opera management.

More successful, and considerably moving, was ‘Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta’ in which Aci reflects first on the carefree carolling of the birds which charms his heart, and then on the contrast between the birds’ happiness and his own grief. The preceding recitative closed with transfiguring gentleness as Aci asks the stars to allow him one more chance to gaze upon his beloved, whereupon he will die content. A weighty silence interposed before Barbagli’s oboe began its sweet song, inviting the shepherd to join in and charm his languishing heart. Here, Mameli employed a tender piano with affecting power and displayed superb accuracy in her avian lilting and trilling. The strings of laBarocca provided a bed of barely there tenderness for Aci’s final anguished ‘Verso già l’alma’, the harmonies softly and subtly altering, communicating the twists of grief in Aci’s heart as Mameli blanched her soprano to the merest, iciest thread.

I have more frequently heard Sonia Prina in roles which require her to rant and rage, which she does with dramatic potency and energy but with occasional mishaps as she leaps between registers and vents unbridled passion and anger. As Galatea she was able to display the more composed emotional depths which her rich contralto, with its velvety bottom and richly focused top, can convey. There was a lovely delicacy when the sea-nymph first tells Aci of the suffering that he must forebear, though strong resentment in the recitative in which she reveals Polifemo’s wrath and cruelty. The fury increased when Prina, arms crossed in indignation, launched into an agile ‘Benché tuoni e l’etra vvampi’ in which Galatea, allied with the oboe, envisions herself as a laurel tree, standing steadfast again the thunder’s fiery flashes as evoked by the dry spiky semiquavers of the strings. Surely few thunder gods would dare to challenge the steely insistence of Galatea’s closing avowal of invincibility, which Prina sustained long and darkly, while her final battle with Polifemo bristled with aggrieved energy and fury.

Luigi De Donato.jpgLuigi De Donato (bass). Image courtesy of Allegorica opera management.

Heralded by a strident fanfare from trumpets and oboe, as Polifemo Luigi De Donato found a good balance between vocal refinement and the Cyclops’ crude clumsiness. De Donato’s diction was excellent, in the recitatives especially, where he used his firm and centre bass to bring the words to life. In his first aria, ‘Se schernito son io’, Polifemo may have been trembling with anger but the bass’s delivery was as authoritative as De Donato’s tall, imposing stance. ‘Fra l’ombra e gli orrori’ caught us unawares with its dark dignity, as Polifemo laments his loss once Galatea has thrown herself in the waves forever. De Donato cleanly negotiated the repeated, challenging leaps in the vocal line, with tight trills in the bass and muted strings signalling his heart-churning distress. The Cyclops has the last word of the drama, and Polifemo’s accompanied recitative of repentance was beautifully hushed.

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo possesses little of the mirth of Handel’s subsequent myth-telling mini-opera and - surprisingly for a work intended to be performed at a nuptial celebration - the tone becomes progressively more sombre and even severe. Jais was not entirely successful in sustaining momentum during a series of subdued and solemn numbers, and perhaps could have looked for greater emotional contrast.

The sudden shift at the close to the brisk moralising chorus was rather destabilising, the characters whom we have been encouraged to empathise briskly shedding their dramatic robes and revealing themselves as personified moral symbols in a philosophical debate. But, if the gruesome end which sees Aci felled by a boulder seemed inapt to the Neapolitan weddings guests in 1708 then they must have been reassured by the final confirmation: “Who loves well has aims of faithful love and pure constancy.”

A few patrons left the Hall before the close, perhaps not anticipating that a performance scheduled to last 90 minutes would over-run by almost a third. But, those who remained offered full-voiced praise to the singers and musicians for a performance that offered dramatic dignity and musical delights.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Aci, Galatea e Polifemo HWV7

Aci - Roberta Mameli (soprano), Galatea - Sonia Prina (contralto), Polifemo - Luigi De Donato (bass), Conductor - Ruben Jais, laBarocca

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 26th September 2019.

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