United Kingdom Handel: Soloists, Academy of Ancient Music/Richard Egarr (director/harpsichord), Milton Court, Barbican, London, 21.5.2016 (CC)
Acis and Galatea (original Cannons version of 1718)
Andrew Tortise – Acis
Rowan Pierce – Galatea
Ashley Riches – Polyphemus
Gwilym Bowen – Damon
Edmund Hastings – Corydon
It was good to see a packed-out Milton Court for this performance of the original Cannons version of Handel’s Acis and Galatea. This is one of that composer’s most popular music theatre works. The “Cannons” part of the edition used refers to the mansion of the Earl of Carnarvon’s mansion north of Edgware, London. It is the first of three versions by the composer. As the programme notes for this evening pointed out, there are no violas or alto-range soloists, so the sound is rather individual. The libretto is by none other than John Gay, taking the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the story concerns the titular hero and heroine, shepherd and nymph (what else?), their love poisoned by a rather nasty giant, Polyphemus. Handel’s genius never flags for one second throughout.
The pastoral pipings of the oboes in the opening ‘Symphony’ tellingly set the scene of joy and Spring-like sunshine. This music is bread and butter to the AAM, and the beautifully pointed playing, particularly of the two oboists Katharina Spreckelsen and Lars Henriksson, was a consistent joy, the whole full of vim. The five soloists comprised the chorus for the opening “Oh, the pleasure of the plains!”, sprightly and joyous. Perhaps Rowan Pearce’s contribution was rather under-powered, and here it was tenor Gwilym Bowen’s contributions that impressed. Contrapuntally alive, this set the scene perfectly: those used to Marriner’s ASMF recording for example might find, on returning to it, that it is rather flat in comparison.
The second Act begins with a contrastive chorus, here absolutely suffused with grief: “Wretched lovers! Fate has passed this sad decree”, the lines entwining almost sensually, the instrumentalists’ melodies an integral part of the slowly evolving first part before the striking chords of “See what ample strides he takes!” and the use of silence in the next line “the mountain nods, the forest shakes”. This is daring writing, commandingly deployed and expertly delivered here. The chorus comments in the most meaningful fashion towards the end of the evening, too, in the lachrymose “Mourn, all ye muses!”, as well as having the last word with the bright but dignified dance, “Galatea, dry your tears”.
This could hardly even be described even as a semi-staged performance, but the singers did their best, with languorous looks of love between the two main protagonists, and various glances and grimaces elsewhere. But it was the music that held the treasures.
Young soprano Rowan Pearce is on the Samling Artist Programme; she has previously performed Drusilla in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea with Egarr as a Britten Pears artist. The recorder-halo of her first air, “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire” was pure delight – suddenly unleashed from the chorus, Pearce’s projection was textbook, her voice glistening and pure. At the other end of the emotional spectrum, though, her dislike at “Go, monster, bid some other guest! I loathe the host, I loathe the feast” was only just believable. Galatea it is who, after Acis’ passing, holds the stage in her beautiful “Must I my Acis still bemoan” (with its fabulous oboe solo, so spot-on on this occasion). Shaped to perfection, it was topped by the whispered orchestration of recorders and strings and rapt tenderness of “Heart, the seat of soft delight”. Perhaps her scale at “The bubbling fountain” could have been more defined, but that really is splitting hairs.
Her Acis, Andrew Tortise, had a piercing but not edgy voice – almost heroic, in fact, if within the confines of Handel. His dotted rhythms in his first air, “Where shall I seek the charming fair?” were almost as razor sharp as his suit; his slurs in the later air, “Love in her eyes sits playing”, were ultra-clean. Together, they were a vocal dream, as the florid pre-interval duet that ends the first part, “Happy we!” proved.
It wasn’t only in the choruses that Gwilym Bowen impressed – his tenor is a tad more rounded than Tortise’s, and he used it to bring great expression to Damon’s recitative “Stay, shepherd, stay!” and the ensuing air, “Shepherd, what art thou persuing?”.
Ashley Riches was a somewhat nondescript baritone soloist in a Messiah I reviewed back in December 2014 over at the Barbican. His Polyphemus was much more involving, his diction superb in the recitative “I rage – I melt – I burn!”. But it was in Acis’s surely most famous air, “O ruddier than the cherry!”, that he absolutely excelled, his staccato superb and the whole imbued with great gusto; his robust delivery of “Cease to beauty to be suing” was splendid. His ejaculatory contributions in the simply gorgeous Trio, “The flocks shall leave the mountains” were properly interruptive to the seamless legato lines of the principal couple (Acis and Galatea on one side of the stage, and Polyphemus right at the other).
Strangely, Gwilym Bowen was a sort of reverse Rowan in that although his choral contributions were spot on, his solo air “Would you gain the tender creature” was rather threadbare. Edmund Hastings was a good Corydon.
This was a tremendous performance: the ovation was fully deserved.