Something Rotten in the State of Arcady?

Nymphs and shepherds preferred. Giants only by invitation”. However, as with
small ads, you don’t always get what you expect………of which more anon.

The second surprise about Iford Arts’ current sell-out run of Handel’s
Acis & Galatea is that they haven’t presented it since way back
in the year 2000 – and if ever a place called out for a certain production it
is the pastoral paradise that is Iford Manor with its garden designed by Peto
and mock-classical cloister micro-theatre. Handel showed early his skills at
word-painting, even in the “foreign” language of English, and the elegantly
melodic lines must have equally perfectly suited the piece’s first
performance at Cannons, Edgware, the country home of James Brydges, later
1st Duke of Chandos, for whom he wrote the music for Acis
in the year 1717-18.

Much has been written about the origins of the libretto (John Gay, with
contributions by Alexander Pope and others) and how in fact the story is a mix
of myth and fabrication which has caught the public’s imagination down
through the centuries. No other Handel opera has been so constantly on the
stage and in the repertory. In his lifetime alone it is recorded that
Acis was performed no less than fifty times – an amazing number for
those days. Of course the length (a modest 90 minutes or so), small forces
required (4 or 5 soloists depending on version, with equally small chorus), and
little in the way of big scene-changes might have contributed to this longevity
and popularity but I doubt they were the deciding factors. The sheer beauty of
Handel’s melting melodies and hummable tunes must be of equal importance as
the many tuneful arias follow fast upon each other with little in the way of

The Sunday night performance by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company and
soloists certainly did not disappoint, even if the English weather kept
everyone on their toes – after all, bubbling brooks need to be replenished even
in Arcady and the River Frome is close by a garden full of its own tumbling
waters. As before here, the tiny performance space brought out the best in
terms of creativity and imagination on the part of director Pia Furtado and
designer Georgia Lowe and this is where the evening took an unexpected turn:
yes, there were elegant costumes suggesting 18th century pastoral
fun and games with silk stockings, masks and frock coats – but why does
sensible, pragmatic Damon (bit of kill-joy usually) have his faced glittered
like a New Romantic of the 1980s? And why is he the only one wearing bright red
among a throng of cream and white? And why is one of the elegantly dressed
ladies of the chorus obviously a man in drag? And why does Galatea, our
demi-goddess water sprite, appear caged like a pole dancer in a sleazy
“gentlemen’s” club? As the story of poor Acis’ doomed love progresses
we realise that this production isn’t going to give us that nice warm cuddly
feeling come the end that we might expect. No, Furtado’s vision is very
different and refreshingly so. In this version of Arcady there’s something
rather nasty lurking in the river bank and it isn’t just that wicked lustful
giant Polythemus; no, it’s all choreographed like a sex-show in the
aforementioned club and although poor helpless Galatea manages to transform the
dead Acis into a little stream, that’s about all she can do – for in the
final scene she is returned to her gilded cage to be ogled and pawed over once
again. Is this a post-feminist statement? Or just a witty imaginative take on a
very old story? Come the end, after applause long and loud for the excellent
cast and musicians, each member of the audience seemed to have a different view
and maybe that’s exactly what was intended.

Ben Hulett as Acis, Chris Turner as Damon.gifBen Hulett as Acis and Chris Turner as Damon

Galatea was sung by the excellent young soprano Mary Bevan who used her
agile voice with confidence and colour, and indeed some powerful emotion such
as in “must I my Acis still bemoan….” whilst nimbly leaping in and out of
wells, in various degrees of undress. If we missed some of the more technical
demands which Handel places on his soprano – the trills in her opening aria
“Hush, ye pretty warbling quire” – were somewhat lacking, this talented
young performer made up for it with affecting characterisation and smooth

Tenor Ben Hulett is another young British singer on the way up and the role
of Acis certainly showed off his range with some limpidly elegant singing at
the top of his voice which nailed the essence of Handel’s writing for this
most sympathetic of characters. His “Love in her eyes sits playing” was a
bewitching moment, but the darker elements of his voice also worked well in the
second half. Like Bevan, he is due to make his debut at the Royal Opera House
soon and with singing like this, he should make a real impact in the lighter

Our not-so-friendly giant Polythemus was beautifully cast in the form of
bass Lukas Jakobski whose impressive frame of six feet plus several inches and
shaven head brought the required dramatic impact onto the scene. He nicely
caught the essence of giant-ness with a rolling wide-spread gait and
slowed-down body movements whilst his rich bass coped nimbly with the faster
passages such as that old favourite of Victorian parlours “O ruddier than the

Last but not least of the soloists was our slightly surprising Damon, ably
sung by tenor Christopher Turner with some interesting stage business not
usually associated with this role – one got the idea that he was perhaps some
kind of Master of Ceremonies in this over-heated erotic world of myth and
legend, rather than just the voice of reason. The idea certainly worked well
and suggested an interesting alternative structure for the drama. His
“Consider, fond shepherd” was particularly well-sung and in its inflections
suggested more than an entirely altruistic motive.

The chorus and dancers, seven in total, made excellent use of the tiny space
available and only occasionally seemed to overwhelm the soloists physically –
there’s a finite limit at Iford as to how many bodies can work effectively in
that cloister. They all worked and sang well as a company, coping efficiently
with the fast costume changes imposed on poor Galatea (mainly stripping off her
clothes it seemed), nipping in and out of the exits as required and only
occasionally treading on any feet incautiously left out by patrons.

Christian Curnyn has had a good year with award-winning recordings, and his
Early Opera Company goes from strength to strength both here and abroad with
composers as varied as Monteverdi, Mozart, Britten, Cavalli and of course
Handel. Working with a force so much smaller than normal here at Iford must be
both a challenge and a delight, and it shows. Handel’s music is second nature
of course to this band but Curnyn never lets that familiarity roll over into
routine – lively and detailed playing is expected and achieved.

This was certainly an Acis & Galatea to remember and as the
gardens emptied, and lights dimmed in the little cloister, the only sound left
was that of the “gentle murm’ring stream” below, winding through the
pastures of Wiltshire. And maybe the sound of a weeping water-sprite, back
again in her gilded cage.

Sue Loder

G.F. Handel: Acis & Galatea. A New Iford Festival Opera Production.
Libretto: John Gay. Sung in English. Iford Festival Opera, England. July 28th 2013.

image_description=Mary Bevan as Galatea [Photo by Rob Coles]
product_title=Something Rotten in the State of Arcady?
product_by=A review by Sue Loder
product_id=Above: Mary Bevan as Galatea

Photos by Rob Coles