Ruben Jais and laBarocca’s musical integrity results in true Handelian success

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Handel, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo: Soloists, laBarocca / Ruben Jais (conductor). Wigmore Hall, London, 26.9.2019. (AK)


Aci – Roberta Mameli
Galatea – Sonia Prina
Polifemo – Luigi De Donato

Of the three versions from Handel’s Acis and Galatea settings, the Italian Baroque ensemble named laBarocca presented the earliest version that is which Handel composed during his stay in Naples in 1708. Barely 23 years of age at the time, Handel produced a beautiful ‘serenata a tre’. Although rooted in the Neapolitan tradition of the Serenata genre and could even be regarded as a Cantata, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is in fact a one-act opera for three singers and a small orchestra (with strings, two trumpets, recorder, oboe and continuo bass). The length – at 1 hour and 40 minutes – is considerable but Handel fills it with beautiful melodies, two of which he might have borrowed from other composers while five numbers are from his own earlier works. Handel creates drama and virtuosity in his handling both the vocal and the orchestral parts. The lengthy duration is absorbed unnoticed in the drama and beauty.

Nicola Giuvo’s libretto is based on Book XIII form Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The sea nymph Galatea loves the shepherd Aci. However, the one-eyed giant Polifemo loves Galatea. When he fails to woe her from Aci, Polifemo kills the shepherd, and Galatea changes Aci’s blood into a spring. To escape Polyphemus, Galatea throws herself into the sea, hoping to be united with Aci. The words of the libretto and thus also the music are about passionate love all way through, concluding with a reconciliation for all those who loved.

On the strength of laBarocca’s performance I feel tempted to suggest that Polifemo (rather than the full title of Aci, Galatea e Polifemo) could be an appropriate alternative title. This role is extraordinary with its wide range of ambitus (from D to a’) as well as with its unusual leaps covering up to two and half octaves. Polifemo gets six arias, extended recitatives and participation in two trios. Bass Luigi De Donato had me on the edge of my seat. His virtuosity is breath-taking but so is his command of a great variety of tonal colours – always in the service of musical content – as well as his dramatic input. I felt blessed to hear him.

Another highlight of the evening was the contribution of oboe player (and occasional recorder player) Nicola Barbagli. The solo oboe is very busy all way through; I wager that he plays at least as many notes (if not more) than in a designated oboe concerto. The recorder is not used as much as the oboe but it also plays important solos (like in the B section of Galatea’s aria ‘S’agita in mezzo all’ onde’). Barbagli was on top form all way through: I have not heard a single oboe or recorder note out of tune and his production of a variety of tone colours is no mean feat on his baroque instruments.

Soprano Roberta Mameli (Aci) and contralto Sonia Prina (Galatea) were fully committed to their roles and sustained their energy throughout the performance. To my ears, Mameli has the perfect vocal colour and voice production for Aci (and other Baroque repertoire) but her top notes did not always make pitching to perfection. Prina’s Galatea was highly dramatic but I am not sure that her voice is perfect for the part. Maybe it was her slight vibrato which made me wish for more clarity regarding pitches. I might have been misled by Prina’s actual swaying her body from left to right (and back) as well as to front and back.

I need to emphasize the full dramatic involvement of both ladies. Their love for each other (in their roles as the shepherd Aci and the sea nymph Galatea) was deeply moving and daring. Elegantly attired, they were on a concert stage holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes to suggest love beyond gender (and not only a women playing the part of a man in love with a woman).

Conductor Ruben Jais sustained all Handelian drama and joy with discipline, energy and musicality. He did not fall into the trap according to which loud and fast in Baroque repertoire equals success. On the contrary, his musical integrity resulted in true artistic success.

Agnes Kory 

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