07/03/2001 - and 4, 5, 6, 7 July 2001
George Frideric Handel: Acis and Galatea
Charlotte Page (Galatea), Agustin Prunell Friend (Acis), Phillip Conway-Brown (Damon), James Edwards (Coridon), Graeme Broadbent (Polyphemus) Rebecca Rudge, Patricia Hammond, Roger Langford
English Bach Festival Baroque Orchestra
Nicholas Cleobury (conductor), Sarah Cremer, Christopher Tudor (directors)
The English Bach Festival, like many radical enterprises, has become reactionary. The meticulous historically informed stagings, with appropriate dances and gestures, were once revelatory and now look, well, old fashioned, like a school play with high production values. It was understandable that, on a day that would have been at home in New Jersey, the audience for the first performance of Acis and Galatea consisted mainly of EBF regulars rather than the more diverse crowd who generally turn up at Handel productions in London these days. And the EBF delivered as expected: the programme advertised costumes "after statues at the Acropolis Museum, Athens" , but the look and feel was Poussin, with special reference to his Acis and Galatea. And the singing and playing were generally pretty good, but not exciting. But once the notes are there, Handel's music is close to performance proof, always guided by generic conventions but with plenty of innovations and added value, and the final result was at least enjoyable, if a touch lugubrious in the end.
Acis and Galatea is a pastoral oddity, not really an opera but definitely more of a drama than Clori, Handel's Italian engagement with shepherds. Written for Cannons in 1718 to a libretto by John Gay, it beat the public theatre at its own game and was pirated and frequently revised and performed by Handel and others. John Eccles wrote an Acis in 1701, and there is more than a hint in Handel's music of the continuation of the might-have-been post-Purcell English opera. The characters have an engaging sense of self-dramatization and self-parody, but this is combined with profound emotion, for example in the mourning for Acis, similar to the end of Dido. There are many ideas, musical and thematic, that Handel returns to later: a shepherd advises Polyphemus how to handle a woman with an earlier incarnation of Me lusigna from Alcina, while the transformation of Acis (crushed with a stone thrown by the jealous Polyphemus) into a stream in which Galatea can bathe has something of the bizarre final mysytic marriages of the late oratorios Theodora and Jephtha, as well as of the squeamy happy end of Semele (that's Ovid for you, of course).
The dancers in this production are a serious challenge to the audience's stiff upper lip. In particular, the two nymphs trying to cajole Galatea out of her erotic melancholy could have been drawn by Ronald Searle, one short and curvy, the other tall and skinny, both with classical hair and drapes busting out all over. Charlotte Page was a sweet, elegiac Galatea, always prepared for the worst. Agustin Prunell-Friend, originally from the Canary Islands, as Acis displayed a small, very sweet and rock solid high tenor, marred only by some contorted vowels. Both were permanently posed by the production, and didn't have much chance to do anything more. Graeme Broadbent, from Halifax, in contrast was allowed some leeway as Polyphemus, and was both hilarious and vocally outstanding, singing with impeccable clarity in a Yorkshire accent. He sounded much sexier than Acis.
Apart from Polyphemus' comic business (counting the repetitions in O ruddier than the cherry on his fingers), the production's one deviation from tasteful grouped poses was an attempted rape by Polyphemus. He was already on top of Galatea when he stopped to listen to Would you gain the tender creature, and she crawled out from under him. Extremely implausible, not at all funny and rather tasteless without any other payoff.