Acis and Galatea is not the easiest of pieces to present in the concert hall. Concert performances of Handel’s operas work best when there is sufficient gravitas in the emotions being presented for the music to take the main strain in rendering them. For all of the score’s brilliance and the acknowledged tragedy in the plot, there is something just a little too playful about Acis and Galatea for it to work well with soloists stuck behind music stands and choruses in rigid lines.
The London Handel Orchestra, conducted from the harpsichord by Laurence Cummings, surmounted this problem by actually staging the work that opened the first full week of the 2018 London Handel Festival. In St John’s, Smith Square, the production values could hardly have been described as high-tech, but what was achieved by director Martin Parr went a long way to generating the right atmosphere.
Four long silk scarves hung above the stage creating a canopy, while foliage entwined around the music stands and green helium balloons strapped to them helped to create a vision of an Arcadian landscape. The entire cast was costumed (courtesy of Charlotte Espiner) with Acis, Damon and the chorus wearing shepherds’ or equally rustic clothes, Galatea donning a shiny green dress that hinted at water, and Polyphemus a large fur and armour. There was full movement, with the soloists and chorus (comprising Pegasus) moving around the auditorium as well as occupying the stage.
During ‘Happy we!’ the chorus stood in the side galleries and showered balloons on the audience, although this particular gesture felt a little underwhelming, while matters were not helped when eight of these proceeded to burst audibly over the remainder of the evening, including three during Galatea’s final aria. Nonetheless, the performance as a whole was highly spirited as Cummings frequently became involved in the drama, whether he was leaving his harpsichord to sing to Galatea as a part of the opening chorus, or having to stand aside to let Damon play a few notes at the keyboard during his first entrance.
The playing was of an exceptionally high standard, and most notable of all was the level of detail and nuance to be found in it. For example, the accompaniment to Polyphemus’ first recitative was immensely subtle when the effect would have been nowhere near as impressive had it been even slightly more forceful.
The soloists revealed some highly pleasing voices, although there were times when they all felt just a little cautious, which did not enable their sounds to flow as easily as they might have done. One sensed that if they had shown greater confidence, which they would have been fully entitled to do, more of their lines would have soared to ethereal heights. Nevertheless, there was some very beautiful singing from Nick Pritchard as Acis, Jorge Navarro Colorado as Damon and especially Lucy Page as Galatea. At the other end of the spectrum, Edward Grint with his assertive bass-baritone made quite an impression as the Cyclops Polyphemus.
This performance of Acis and Galatea will be repeated on 21 March, while the festival continues until 16 April. For full details of all events visit the London Handel Festival website.