Acis and Galatea: 2018 London Handel Festival

However, in the light of this accomplished performance at St John’s Smith
Square, one of first events of this year’s London Handel Festival, perhaps
such enthusiasm can be indulged. After all, Winton Dean described the final
aria, which expresses the transfiguring effect of Galatea’s love and loss,
as ‘one of the most sublime things Handel ever wrote’ ( Handel’s Dramatic Oratorios). The work was popular in Handel’s
day, and remains so, judging by the capacious and appreciative audience at
St John’s.

This year’s festival is titled Handel in London. Since Handel, who
settled in the capital in 1712 and became a naturalised citizen fifteen
years later, spent most of his working-life in London there are plentiful
works from which to choose. But, the Festival also aims to explore the
wider social context of Georgian London, and Acis and Galatea is a
good place to start. For, it not only represents the young Handel’s
attempts to enchant native audiences suspicious of foreign art forms and
styles, but also, through the comic satire of John Gay’s libretto which
abounds with contemporary references, throws light on the cultural politics
of the period.

Commissioned by James Brydges, Earl of Carnavon and later Duke of Chandos, Acis and Galatea had its first performance sometime between
1718-20 at Cannons, the stately home on the grand Middlesex estate where
Brydges maintained a group of musicians for his chapel and private
entertainments. Gay adapted Dryden’s translation of Ovid and threw in a
sprinkle of quotations from and allusions to John Hughes and Alexander

Ignoring the advice of the pragmatic Damon, two besotted lovers – shepherd
Acis and sea nymph Galatea – relish their pastoral seclusion. Their bucolic
happiness is, sadly, but brief, brusquely disturbed by the smitten cyclops,
Polyphemus, whose raging jealousy and rampant passion have tragic
consequences. Fortunately, Galatea’s love effects a divine metamorphosis:
the murdered Acis, whom Polymethus has crushed with a rock, is transformed
into a crystal stream which fountains from the rock.

Under Laurence Cummings’ elegant direction, the London Handel Orchestra and
the nineteen singers of Pegasus complemented the vocal solos stylishly. The
orchestral colourings were shrewdly highlighted by Cummings, with David
Miller’s theorbo contributions providing particularly well-judged
rhetorical enhancement. Tempos were swift enough to conjure lightness of
spirit, but never too fast for the emotional import to be lost.

Cummings was willing to let the music speak for itself, nowhere more so
than in the final hushed chorus, ‘Mourn all ye muses’, the graded
diminuendo of which evoked a tender but profound Purcellian pathos, equal
to the close of Dido and Aeneas upon which Handel draws.
Similarly, the interlacing of the stricken Galatea’s pained questions –
‘Must I my Acis still bemoan/ Inglorious, crush’d beneath that Stone … Must
the lovely charming Youth/ Die for his Constancy and truth?’ – the oboe’s
plaintive melodic echoes, and the consoling choral responses – ‘Cease,
cease, Galatea, cease to grieve’ – was beautifully shaped. And, the
orchestral dotted rhythms that represent Acis’ ‘resurrection’ and
continuing presence in the burbling stream were intimated with delicacy.
Handel certainly doesn’t come much better than this.

As Galatea, Lucy Page sang with a fresh, clean soprano, sweeping sweetly
across the registers though not always projecting strongly. Nick
Pritchard’s tenor is rich and refined; Acis displayed both romantic ardour
and, in his martial aria in Act 2, heroic potential.

Edward Grint made an impressive entrance through the red curtains behind
the instrumentalists, bristling with fury. But, even in Polymethus’ first
recitative, ‘I rage, I rage, I rage, I melt, I burn’, Grint’s bass balanced
ballast and beauty – ‘I melt’ was beguilingly languorous: it was clear why
the Cyclops fancied his chances with the nubile nymph. With paradoxical
elegance, Grint negotiated the ungainly vocal contours and stuttering
breathless which so often characterises the giant’s melodies, Polymethus’
unrest being sweetly countered by the obbligato ‘flauto’ (Catherine Latham,
recorder) in the well-known ‘O ruddier than the cherry’. Similarly, the
leaping octaves – ‘Torture, fury, rage, despair’ – with which the cyclops
interrupts the lovers’ mournful duet were cleanly articulated and prickled
with frustration.

Tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado, whom I have not previously heard, displayed a
pleasingly mellow tenor and relaxed stage presence. Damon’s second aria,
‘Consider fond shepherd’, was beautifully sung, the top light but true.

This was a staged performance and as, upon entering St John’s, I wheezed
through the eddying dry-ice smoke in a haze of lurid pink and green, I had
slight misgivings about what might be in store. In the event, the pastoral
partying was of a tame, traditional nature. Though Miles Fisher’s lighting
provided a rainbow of hues from satanic crimson to elysian gold, the design
was quaint rather than quirky. A criss-cross canopy of silken scarves
foreshadowed the concluding watery transfiguration and green helium
balloons bobbed over the orchestral players (obscuring the singers when
they were positioned at the rear), whose music-stands were festooned with
Arcadian foliage. Alongside conventional pastoral apparel, Galatea’s dress
was a briny green; Polymethus’ fur conveyed his brutishness.

St John’s is no easy venue in which to present staged works. The lovely
acoustic is tempered by poor sightlines and intrusive pillars. Director
Martin Parr sought to overcome the limitations by employing varied entrance
points, shifting soloists from left to right and moving the chorus around
the venue, including the gallery. Unfortunately, Parr repeatedly instructed
his soloists to deliver their arias from a sitting or prone position, thus
rendering the protagonists invisible to all but those seated in the first
few front-rows.

The result was that this was less of ‘staging’ of Acis and Galatea than a performance with gimmicks. Laurence
Cummings was drawn into the fun. First evicted from the harpsichord by
Damon, his score tossed into the air, then required to provide the gallant
Acis with his sword, Cummings also turned to the nave to give the chorus
their cue to release a shower of balloons from the gallery during the
end-of-Act 1 chorus, ‘O happy we’ (some in the audience seemed more
interested in batting the balloons back and forth than in listening to the
musical accompaniment to the air-borne ballet). As the two-Act serenade was
performed without a break, there was no opportunity for a balloon-gathering
foray; the result was repeated explosive bursting throughout Act 2,
painfully disrupting moments of emotional weight, not least Damon’s Act 2
aria and Galatea’s final aria of transformation.

My reservations had begun when it seemed that the sopranino recorders had
not been not trusted to evoke the ‘warbling quire’ which Galatea dispatches
to fetch her beloved Acis, and during the nymph’s plea, the chorus dangled
and waggled paper ducks from fishing rods. As I recalled childhood visits
to fairgrounds and endeavours to ‘hook the duck’, the mannered order of
Arcadia seemed far away.

I’m probably guilty of humourlessness and many undoubtedly enjoyed the
antics. Admittedly, there is much irony in Gay’s text, with its parodic
echoes of nonsensical Arcadian conceits and interplay of ‘high’ and ‘low’.
But, to me, Handel’s music is sincere, and the challenge is to distinguish
between, and marry, textual levity and musical earnestness. Interestingly,
when Handel presented a London performance of Acis and Galatea in
1732 it was announced that ‘There will be no action on the stage’. As Hawks
observes, the serenade is ‘no shallow soap opera, but a deep exploration of
emotions and psychology’. Fortunately the musicians and singers concurred.


London Handel Festival

continues until 17th April 2018.

Claire Seymour

London Handel Festival 2018

Handel: Acis and Galatea HWV49

Acis – Nick Pritchard, Galatea – Lucy Page, Polyphemus – Edward Grint,
Damon – Jorge Navarro Colorado; Director – Martin Parr, Conductor –
Laurence Cummings, Costume designer – Charlotte Epsiner, Lighting designer
– Jack Weir, London Handel Orchestra, Pegasus Choir.

St John’s Smith Square, London; Monday 19th March 2018.

image_description=Acis and Galatea: London Handel Festival, St John’s Smith Square
product_title=Acis and Galatea: London Handel Festival, St John’s Smith Square
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Lucy Page (Galatea)

Photo credit: Robert Workman