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Acis and Galatea

by on 6 September 2021

Bijou Delight of Bubbly Baroque

Acis and Galatea

by George Frideric Handel, libretto by John Gay

The Vache Baroque Festival, Chalfont St. Giles until 5th September    

Review by Mark Aspen

One of the transformations in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is the tragic result of a heavily skewed love-triangle intruding on the idyllically passionate romance between the water nymph, Galatea and the shepherd Acis.   Ovid’s myth kindled the brilliance of Handel to make his own transformation into his pastoral opera, Acis and Galatea.  Since the opera demands a pastoral setting, it would be hard to find one more suited than The Vache country estate, with its rolling parkland, nicely adorned for the occasion with cut-outs of winged sheep and putti.  Thence the transformation of Handel’s “little opera”, as he called it, by VBF (as The Vache Baroque Festival is affectionately known) into a bijou delight of bubbly baroque. 

The bucolic simplicity of the plot and the ornate ebullience of Handel’s music is enhanced by the energy and enthusiasm of VBF’s youthful cast and nimble baroque octet, conducted from the harpsicord by Music Director, Jonathan Darbourne.

The pastoral joy of the work is established in Act One, describing a joyful idyll of carefree living.  During the typically Handelian lively overture the chorus are frozen (a device skilfully reused to prevent too many entrances and exits), which gives an opportunity to admire the folkloric costumes of the nymphs and swains who inhabit this blissful world.  Now they burst in, extoling “the pleasure of the plains” in ecstatic song and lively dance.  The admiration moves to Monica Nicolaides’ choreography, realised on such a small stage without losing the exuberance and energy of the dance. 

All this playful wooing and courting, pursuing and winning proves too much for the pining Galatea when she arrives in her search for her beloved, Acis.  The part of Galatea is superbly portrayed by Rowan Pierce, a singer well versed in the country house opera, both in her emotion-accurate acting and the clarity of her lightly decorated soprano lirico.   Even the birds fire her passion for Acis, and she tells them to stop their songs.  Pierce’s “Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!” is a treat. 

Origami birds are just one of many clever devices that Designer, Laura Jane Stanfield uses to compensate for the necessary absence of a set in this open-air production.  Another is the use of props, often symbolic and occasionally tongue-in-cheek and self-deprecating.   When Acis enters seeking his love, for example, he carries a pocket sextant (although perhaps a little too small though to be seen at the back of the audience). 

Kathleen Ferrier Award winner James Way fairly fizzes with emotional energy as he acts the frustration of the love-struck Acis.   When the two lovers finally meet, Acis’ siciliano serenade, “Love in her eyes sits playing” is beautifully sung by Way, his honeyed tenor voice running like a draft of mead. 

Their meeting though is set against the sensually charged background of the Arcadian pleasure-seekers, nymphs and shepherds played with relish by the chorus.  The licence is consensual and the hedonism happily self-indulgent:  the boys and girls are having fun.  When the two lovers are desperately seeking each other, Galatea is counselled by the shepherdess Coridon and Acis by Damon, another shepherd, who tries to relieve Acis’ despondency.  The role of Damon is split between tenors Rory Carver and Guy Elliott, both experienced recital performers, but here showing concentrated acting skills within a continuous engagement with the role.  Coridon, played by Esther Mallett, also counsels resolve.  These three shepherds form part of the five-strong chorus, a number which has a pleasing advantage in that it is possible to distinguish individual singers.  These include the firm foundation of Oskar McCarthy’s rich bass, and Nancy Holt’s pleasingly melodic mezzo.  Holt is in her early career and is well worth looking out for.

It is the chorus that importantly sets the mood.  Swains, sheepskins at the ready, pursue nymphs clad in hooped stockings, who playfully rebuff their advances: the mood is of veiled eroticism.  They attend on Galatea and Acis, bringing a bath which they fill with coloured bath-foam from florists’ pails.  This is an inspired touch of tender humour.  Bubbles are blown in as the couple get into the bath together, singing the light-hearted duet, “Happy we; what joys I feel; what charms I see!”  As the chorus echo these words, Acis and Galatea become lost in a plethora of soap bubbles of all shapes and sizes! 

Thus the mood of Act One is underlined.  The weather at The Vache has improved and a low sun colours Poussin-esque clouds.  During the interval the sun sets and it becomes dark, appropriately portending the mood of Act Two.  The subtly effective lighting design by Andrew Ellis now has a chance to come into its own, enhancing this mood.

The chorus warns “Wretched lovers! Fate has passed this sad decree: no joy shall last”.   The minor key alerts us that the mood has changed and the percussive voice of the cello and double bass presage the coming of the giant cyclops, Polyphemus.  The chorus warns “Behold the monster Polypheme!  See what ample strides he takes!” and the pastoral idyll of the first Act is shattered.  

This is quite a puff for the entrance of Polyphemus, a monstrous one-eyed goliath.  However in this role, Tristan Hambleton rises to the part, a snarling, jealousy-ridden ogre, crashing his way around with a heavy staff and a heavy hand.  The role has to be played big, in the drama sense, and Hambleton could have taken it even bigger, but wisely measured his portrayal with gestures, crushing the “blood” from cherries, and with his ample bass-baritone voice.  With the musical accompaniments Handel mocks Polyphemus, furioso strings as he fumes, “I rage, I melt, I burn!” and a sopranino recorder against “O ruddier than the cherry”.  The musicians have great fun with this.  Hambleton is a little more comfortable towards the top of his range, but here this works in making Polyphemus’ outbursts more of a rant.

Polyphemus is arrogant and vain.  In one of many finely details references, Director, Sophie Gilpin has him preening himself before a mirror imagining himself the hero, but an image of Acis looks back.  Polyphemus rages because he fancies Galatea and feels thwarted by Acis.  The “cherry” is Galatea.  To say that Polyphemus is a clumsy suitor is an understatement: Galatea appears after their first encounter with a bloody nose and split lip.  

It falls to Coridon to try to calm the enraged Polyphemus.  “Would you gain the tender creature …” is a better bet, “… softly, kindly, gently.”  Esther Mallett (whom this critic recently saw in La Rondine) is superb in the role of Coridon, her leggiero soprano voice bright and full of life.   Meanwhile Damon pleads with Acis “Consider, fond shepherd, how fleeting’s the pleasure…”, but Acis is already angrily sharpening a knife (another fine detail), “Love sounds th’alarm …”  

Clearly, this is not going to end well.   When Acis and Galatea swear everlasting love to each other in a beautifully accomplished duet, “The flocks shall leave the mountains … ere I forsake my love”, Polyphemus overhears, and interlopes to form a trio.  Hambleton maintains the air of menace such that Polyphemus’ violence is shocking.  It would be easy to over-egg the murder scene, of Polyphemus tearing a massive rock from Mount Etna and crushing Acis with it, but Gilpin and Stanfield turn the horror into a ballet in slow motion.   The scene is bathed in red light, as the chorus laments, “Mourn, all ye muses … the gentle Acis is no more!” before imploring Galatea to use her powers as an immortal to seek his redemption.  The moment is palpably touching. 

The transformation scene is beautifully rendered, as Acis becomes an immortal fountain.  The chorus interweave delicate drapes and the lighting becomes pale blue.  Pierce’s final aria is heartrendingly lyrical, “Heart, the seat of soft delight, be thou now a fountain bright”.  

Acis and Galatea tells in essence of the triumph of constancy over jealousy.  Fittingly the chorus have the last word, “Acis now a god appears … murm’ring still thy gentle love”.

The Vache Baroque Festival 2021 marks the second year of VBF as an emerging country house opera festival. It deserves continuing success.  It is extremely rare for critics to mention the front-of-house, but at VBF they are part of the setting, a charming crew (mainly it seems ballet and music students), helpful even to carrying the picnic of your “of a certain age” critic to a nice place in the garden. 

Moreover, VBF provides an amuse-bouche prior to the opera, as the audience members forgather with their picnics.   In the Stone Bench garden, I just caught the end of the first morsel, Purcell’s Fairest Isle delightfully sung by Nancy Holt and accompanied by Gavin Kibble on cello and Toby Carr on the theorbo.   The second pre-show offering, in a different part of the gardens near the Torii (a Japanese gate) is instrumental.  Kibble and Carr are joined by violinists Michael Gurevich and Naomi Burrell for a recital of Handel’s Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 2, No. 3.  Before that Oonagh Lee and Joel Raymond play recorders in the Prelude and Allemande from Première suite de pièces à deux dessus, Op. 4 by Jacques-Martin Hotteterre.    In the very informative introductions we learn that Hotteterre (1674 – 1763) was responsible for the recorder in the form we know today, and his grandfather invented the oboe, Lee and Raymond’s other instrument in the opera itself.   The chamber orchestra play period instruments, witness convex bows, animal gut strings and the absence of chin-rests in the violins.   These talented instrumentalists, and indeed the FoH staff, importantly help in setting the ambience for the operatic experience. 

The ambience of The Vache certainly works for Acis and Galatea, for it hints at Arcadia.  Sophie Gilpin and the VBF company have created a work true to the character of Handel’s “little opera”: he would certainly have approved.  Ovid definitely would.

Mark Aspen, September 2021

Photography by The Photography Shed

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