United Kingdom Handel, Acis and Galatea (production premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Brecon Baroque / Nicholas Cleobury (conductor) Richard Burton Theatre, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 30.1.2014 (GPu)
Galatea: Jane Harrington
Acis: Oliver Mercer
Damon: Eamon Mulhall
Polyphemus: Matthew Stiff
Chorus of Shepherds and Shepherdesses:
Caroline Kennedy (soprano),
Chloe Hinton (mezzo)
Thomas Herford (tenor)
Andrew Mahon (bass)
Conductor: Nicholas Cleobury
Director: Annilise Miskimmon
Set and Costume Designer: Nicky Shaw
Lighting Designer: Declan Randall
“Handel did not specify a category of genre for this work, and over time it was referred to as a “little opera”, ‘pastoral (entertainment)’, ‘serenata’ and ‘masque’ (the most widely accepted term today)”. So begins Artie Heinrich’s entry on the work in the Cambridge Handel Encyclopedia (ed. Annette Landgraf and David Vickers, 2009). Such ambiguity about the genre of the work points to the real enough difficulties involved in performing it (other than as a concert work) nowadays. We don’t go in for masques, serenatas or pastoral entertainments anymore and as the various terms applied to it and cited by Heinrich suggest, it isn’t a ‘straight’ opera either. Wriiten under the patronage of the Duke of Chandos, the first performance, at Cannons in June 1718, seems not to have been fully staged, though there was probably some use of costumes and painted scenic backdrops. Later attempts were made through the Eighteenth Century to present Acis and Galatea as a stage work, many of them involving no direct input from Handel, and sometimes incorporating additional music by other composers or the borrowing of materials from Handel’s earlier Acis, Galatea e Poliphemo, composed in Naples in 1708. There are obvious difficulties involved in staging Acis and Galatea – not least the question of how to present the more-than-human-sized figure of Polyphemus (who at one point demands “Bring me a hundred reeds of decent growth / To make a pipe for my capacious mouth”). The libretto does contain some indications of action, but for the most part this is better imagined (with the help of Handel’s suggestive music) rather than enacted on stage. When, for example, the Chorus declares
Behold the monster Polypheme!
See what ample strides he takes!
The mountain nods, the forest shakes;
The waves run frighten’d to the shores:
Hark, how the thund’ring giant roars!
it is hard to see what a director can do that isn’t already done by the words and Handel’s music.
Annilise Miskimmon has wisely allowed the music and the stylised pastoral libretto (by John Gay [largely], Alexander Pope and John Hughes) to speak for themselves, decorating and occasionally clarifying them with some simple stage business, often rather neatly choreographed, and with the witty use of a stage set designed by Nicky Shaw (a set in itself already quite ingenious and witty). It consists of a box, which looks rather like a toy theatre charmingly decorated with Arcadian scenes, which opens up in several ways and which contains a number of doors through which characters can ‘chase’ one another, as any good pastoral nymphs and shepherds should, and which, at one point allows Acis and Galatea to go quickly in and out just failing to see one another, like characters in a French farce. The cast of “Happy nymphs and happy swains” (to quote the second line of the libretto) are neatly, even elegantly dressed, as befits the inhabitants of the artificial pastoral world. If the libretto has any more serious ‘message’ it is perhaps that in committing themselves to one another with a seriousness that goes beyond the games of the pastoral world, Acis and Galatea leave themselves vulnerable to suffering and death.
Miskimmon’s direction mocked the artificiality of the pastoral conventions only very mildly, and in the process perhaps sacrificed any possibility of allowing the singers to undertake any real development of their characters, required as they were to stay within those conventions. Given that limitation, all of the cast acquitted themselves well. Jane Harrinngton, as Galatea, had a rich, but nimble voice and an assured sense of Handelian idiom; her Acis, Oliver Mercer, after a slightly nervous and inhibited start, developed a musically convincing interpretation of his role,. His performance of his Act I aria ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ thoroughly delightful and his bravery and nobility in Act II as he faces up to the threat of Polyphemus was made musically altogether plausible (even if the stylisations of the text and production could hardly allow it to be theatrically plausible).
There’s not much to be made of Damon in terms of character or psychology, since he is more a necessary agent and function of the plot than an individual, but Eamon Mulhall sang his contributions with all the Handelian elegance one had any right to expect. The role of Polyphemus is a very difficult one if the work is staged. No singer/actor could, I suspect, live up on stage to the way the character is drawn in the libretto – a one-eyed monster whose normal food is “infant limbs”, washed down with “full draughts of human blood”, who carries, entire a “trusty pine” tree and whose very steps shake the forests and the mountains. Mythographical interpretation of the original Sicilian folktale, which lies behind the Ocvidian version of the story, has found in Polyphemus a kind of incarnation of the destructive power of Mount Etna. A tall order for any performer! But the role is certainly a very rewarding one, whether in Polyphemus’s comic, yet beautiful, aria “O ruddier than the cherry” or in his contribution to the Act II trio with the young lovers. In all that he sang Matthew Stiff was impressively musical, though a slightly heavier bass would surely be ideal for the role.
All the four principals were exemplary in their clarity of diction and much the same could be said for the four on-stage members of the chorus – soprano Caroline Kennedy, mezzo Chloe Hinton, tenor Thomas Herford and bass Andrew Mahon. Caroline Kennedy’s ringingly pure soprano was particularly striking. Given that the venue has no pit, the orchestra, led by no less a figure than Rachel Podger and conducted from the harpsichord by Nicholas Cleobury were placed at the side of the stage, along with a supplementary chorus. The work of the orchestra and supplementary chorus was of a uniformly high standard, though one wondered whether at some points in Act II a slightly greater roughness of texture and faster tempi might not have been risked.
Overall this was a thoroughly enjoyable and rewarding production of a work which is only deceptively simple. The very real problems it presents were competently and unfussily overcome and with limited resources. This is a model of what touring opera productions should be, trusting in the work and finding a production style that doesn’t force itself aggressively between composer/librettist and audience. In saying that, its virtues were not merely those of small-scale touring opera. It found the elegance in the original and went a long way towards making the hopelessly outdated conventions of pastoral viable in the modern world.