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The big guy

Royal Albert Hall
08/06/2001 -  
George Frideric Handel: Acis and Galatea

Rosemary Joshua (Galatea), Toby Spence (Acis), James Gilchrist (Damon), John Tomlinson (Polyphemus)

Paul Goodwin (conductor)

Academy of Ancient Music, Academy of Ancient Music Chorus

The pastoral strand in the 2001 Proms perhaps inevitably includes Handel's Acis and Galateaas well as L'allegro. Acis is pastoral in every sense, in its setting, its sources in Theocritus and Ovid, and its Et in Arcadia ego undercurrent. (Though of course it's Sicily not Arcadia.) Loss and death are present from the start, from Galatea's first aria where she laments that Acis is absent. There are hints in Gay's libretto and Handel's music that Polyphemus' raging and burning are those of a volcano, as well as of a lovelorn roughneck, which emphasises the violence inherent in nature. But the dramatic and musical form are ultra-civilized, perfect for an English country-garden little opera.

The Academy of Ancient Music's performance was also civilized, though sprightly, perhaps a bit short on the elegiac undertones of the early part of the work. The singers, though, were all superb. The Academy of Ancient Music Chorus in contrast were genteelly bumptious in the jollier parts, but terrifically expressive in the portentous and then explicitly mournful parts of the second act. Rosemary Joshua's expensive style has at times overshadowed the merits of her singing. Tonight she was unmistakeably vocally accurate and stylish. She looked haggard and lightly tanned, as if just off the plane after a short trip to the Caribbean. Toby Spence was similarly a gilded, ungrubby shepherd Acis, full of charm. He had a few rough edges and needed to mine some of the low notes, but sang with great bravura, possibly helped by a friendly needle match with the other tenor James Gilchrist over the coloratura passages. Gilchrist had Coridon's aria as well as Damon's, and probably won on points. He isn't as pretty as Spence, who looks like a very young Robert Redford, but has a pleasant voice, rock-solid technique and great dramatic sense. Spence's attractive voice and personality will probably give him a range of choices in his career; Gilchrist might turn out to be a pretty good Mozart tenor, but he is definitely going to be a world-class Samson and Jephtha one day, which in some quarters is as good as you can get.

John Tomlinson as Polyphemus was on a different scale to all of the above, entirely appropriately. He recorded this role, and Handel's other heavy, Hercules, a long time ago, but he doesn't do nearly enough Handel these days. He boomed away in his opening recitative (and also went instantly red in the face), but sang the twiddly bits with amazing agility and full sound. He would be an exceptionally luxurious Valens if anybody is planning yet another Theodora. His acting was also terrific: he made Polyphemus gleefully horrible but also vulnerable, and he stayed in character throughout, sitting with a slouch and apparently on the verge of drooling, to the point where it seemed possible that he actually was blotto. Then he took his glasses off for the bows at the end and looked extremely intelligent.

Of course, Tomlinson's signature role is the another chap with one eye who causes a cataclysm that is partially redeemed through love, Wotan. The description also fits the Princess Eboli in Don Carlos, but he might not get round to that one.

Earlier in the evening, the Ulster Orchestra under Dmitry Sitkovesky presented another maritime monster, Ian Wilson's Man-o'-War. This ten-minute orchestral work, commissioned by the BBC and here receiving its world premiere, is interesting rather than nasty, but definitely brutish and fairly short. The title reflects both the massive power and relentless movement of the main current of the work and elements of darting danger that irrupt beneath the water-line, as it were, mainly in starbursts of percussion and snatches of melody in the strings and woodwind. Splendidly phastasmagoric, and it doesn't outstay its welcome.

H.E. Elsom



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