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Acis and Galatea

by on 24 July 2022

Gentle Murm’ring Stream

Acis and Galatea – The Sixteen in Concert

by George Frideric Handel, libretto by John Gay

West Green House Opera at the Theatre on the Lake, Hartley Wintney until 22nd July   

Review by Mark Aspen

“Lovers and madmen have such seething brains … that apprehend more than cool reason ever comprehends”.  Thus says Duke Theseus, just before he also implicates the poet in one of A Midsummer Night’s Dream ’s many well-known epigrams,  “the lunatic, the lover and the poet …”

He could well be talking about the love-besotted shepherd, Acis, and the raging giant cyclops, Polyphemus, whose brains seethe in their very differing pursuits of the beautiful water nymph, Galatea … whose romanticism is certainly poetic.

Here we have the perilous love-triangle described in Book xiii of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the root source of John Gay’s libretto for Handel’s Acis and Galatea.  This particular one of Ovid’s collection of transformation stories was very popular with baroque period composers and their librettists.  Indeed Handel had already used the tale in his serenata, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, which was commissioned by the Duchess Aurora Sanseverino for the celebrations in Naples of the wedding her niece, just over a decade earlier.

Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a tale of two halves.  Act One is a carefree idyll of joy and happiness, Act Two, with the intervention of Polyphemus, takes a threatening, and ultimately (or rather penultimately) tragic, turn. 

So let’s put Polyphemus out of our minds pro tem, as here we are in West Green House Gardens, an idyllic situation if ever there was one, with its meticulously tended flowers and lakeside setting for a concert performance of Acis and Galatea.  Last year’s innovative Theatre on the Lake has been thoughtfully enhanced.  The still stage shimmers above the island in the centre of the lake, but the water’s edge pavilions are now embanked and closer to the stage.   In the evening sun, the willow trees on the opposite banks form a light green backdrop, and the willow seeds gently fall in their fluffy coats, symbolically like confetti across the proscenium.  All this adds to the pastoral atmosphere of Act One. 

The ebullient Handelian overture presages the chorus’ opening, extolling the “pleasure of the plains!” where “happy nymphs and happy swains … dance and sport the hours away”.  Yes, it is all too good to be true, as we later find out.  The chorus comprises the five principals who are all drawn from The Sixteen, Harry Christophers’ inspiring choral groupings sourced from the cream of choral singers.  The swains are even delighted with weather, in all its manifestations, an idea that is certainly not topical in a week that saw unprecedented high temperatures. 

Galanthus ‘Galatea’

“Snowdrops attract a particularly fanatical band of admirers”

Anna Pavord

Galatea is a Nereid, a divine river nymph, daughter of the sea-goddess Doris.  She is of alabaster white beauty.  (Her name, from the Greek γάλα θεα, means milk-white goddess.)  She is trying to cool her ardour for Acis and pleads with the birds to hush, because “your thrilling strains awake my pains, and kindle fierce desire”.  The sopranino recorder emulates the “warbling quire”.   Grace Davidson sings Galatea with a bright pure soprano.  Davidson regularly sings for composer Max Richter, for whom she is soloist of choice.  She has a very expressive articulation, as in her plea to her avian tormentors, “bring back my Acis to my sight!”

Acis is equally earnest to find Galatea, but he pleads to the mountains.  Acis is a mortal, but has a pedigree, his father is the demi-god pan.  Maybe this is why he does not have the same rustic wisdom as his grounded fellow shepherd Damon.  When Acis asks the mountains, “Where shall I seek the charming fair?” tells him to stop spending his energy on pining and get a life, “heedless running to thy ruin; share our joy, our pleasure share”. 

Acis is sung by tenor Jeremy Budd, who started his career as a Head Chorister of St. Paul’s Cathedral, as a treble soloist!  He sings Acis with assurance and clarity but with a slight edginess to his voice, which befits the character.  Mark Dobell as Damon, offers a somewhat more mellow voice, the soothing quality of the helpful chum to Acis.  Apart from the concert hall, Dobell has sung in many ecclesiastical surroundings including in The Sistine Chapel, and is a long-standing member of the Westminster Abbey choir: watch out at home at the next televised state occasion.  It is interesting that whilst Budd and Dobell are both tenors, the colour and timbre of their voices is markedly different, much to advantage in this piece.

Nymphaeum at West Green House

The two lovers seek each other in desperation.  Acis, in “Love in her eyes sits playing…”, sings of Galatea’s eyes, then her lips, then of her breast, then of her … charms (!).  Galatea sings of a pair of doves, “billing, cooing, panting, wooing”, a phrasing that Davidson makes much of.   When they do find each other, the sensuality explodes in an expression of ecstatic elation, in the duet “Happy we! What joys I feel! What charms I see!”

The previous performance of Acis and Galatea that I have seen was fully staged and this last duet, which concludes the first act, had the two lovers undressing each other in a bubble bath!   Fun though this might be (… no, fun that it was) it did lead to my having a discussion in the interval contrasting staged and concert performances of baroque operas. 

It was quite clear that The Sixteen in Concert’s production of Acis and Galatea does give a welcome opportunity to focus on the singing, and the poetry of the words, on the music, and on their interplay.  The director Alastair Ross conducts an octet of musicians from the harpsichord.  It is refreshing to see opera musicians on the stage, particularly the theorbo, which is only usually spied as its giraffe neck, rising out of the pit.   Handel has the music underline and repeat the words, to comment on the action, to reveal the protagonists’ characters, and to portray settings.   The woodwind duo, for example, with oboes and recorders of various registers, provides sound of songbirds, babbling water and cooing doves.  Ross and his musicians are no mere accompanists, they are collaborators in this musical drama.  

As twilight falls during the dining interval, the illumined gardens become more apparent and yet more charm is added.  The auditorium pavilions this year are one of generously spaced cabaret tables, café-théâtre style and one of conventional raked seating.  Audience in the latter dine in the lawn pavilion, in Raj tents, or on picnic tables around the lake edge, creating their own enchanting ambience. 

As it begins to become dark Sarah Bath’s lighting design, which incorporates the landscape lighting, comes to life, following and pointing up the mood of the plot.  The frost fern reticulations that form part of the minimal set throw ominous shadows.

For the mood has changed with the anticipation of Polyphemus in Act Two.  The willow seeds have ceased falling and the carp in the lake break the surface to gobble-up flies.  Nature usefully again adds serendipitous symbolism, for Polyphemus is the son of the sea-god Poseidon.   Whom will Polyphemus gobble-up?

Immediately, the chorus forewarns “Wretched lovers! Fate has passed this sad decree: no joy shall last”.   The music moves to minor key mood-shift.  Percussive cellos portend the presence of Polyphemus.  “Behold the monster Polypheme!”  The chorus sounds the alarm, “See what ample strides he takes!” and in a few bars the pastoral idyll blows to fragments.  

The impressively voiced bass Stuart Young introduces an incandescent Polyphemus.  His furious words “I rage, I melt, I burn!” he simmers, while the lakeside is lit red.    Young’s powerful and rich bass voice certainly spells out Polyphemus’ state of mind … which ain’t nice!  But when he sees Galathea, he mind is diverted from his rival Acis.   “O ruddier than the cherry” he sings.  But the music itself ridicules Polyphemus.  The furioso strings that accompanied his raging now stand aside for a mocking sopranino recorder.  Young seems to be really enjoying being the baddie, and his singing is a great characterisation of Polyphemus.  Young is a Vicar Choral at St Paul’s Cathedral, one of a dozen professional singers who provide the core of choral continuity in the cathedral.

When they meet, Galatea makes a spirited stand against Polyphemus’ approaches, “The lion calls not to his prey, nor bids the wolf the lambkin stay”, but it falls to another shepherd, Coridon to try to calm things down.  He has Polyphemus’ confidence, and suggests that his wooing should be more tender.  If “Would you gain the tender creature …” , it might work better to speak “… softly, kindly, gently”, Coridon councils.  Unfortunately, Oscar Golden Lee only gets one air as Coridon.  It would be good to have more opportunities to hear his well-honed tenor tones.

Acis though is not going to give up without a fight, “in defence of my treasure, I’d bleed at each vein”, for the adrenalin is flowing and “fear is a-flying”.   From this point on, things move very fast, but they do provide some of the best scoring and words, which are consummately performed.  

As Acis and Galatea beautifully express undying love, “The flocks shall leave the mountains … ere I forsake my love”.  Polyphemus overhears, and pours out his venom towards Acis. The duet becomes a trio with two sets of diametrically opposed emotions, culminating in Polyphemus’ “Die, presumptuous Acis, die!” which Young delivers with forceful vigour.

Here is where the concert version requires the audience to concentrate on the words in order to understand the violent deed that is the crux of the drama.  Acis does indeed bleed at each vein, but we do not see it as we might in a staged version.  Neither is seen the “massy ruin” (a dirty great boulder) that is Polyphemus’ weapon when the green-monster overtakes him.  Less to clear up for the stage crew though.

The dirge, “Mourn, all ye muses … gentle Acis is no more!” poignant and intensely touching, is a highlight for the chorus.   However, then comes the coda, musically and dramatically.  As they comfort Galatea in her grieving, they realise that she is one of the immortals.

An Ovidian metamorphosis redeems Acis for immortality.  Galatea transforms Acis’ mangled form into a spring of water from a rock.  In this her final air, Grace Davidson’s bell like voice and the musical accents from the woodwind talk to each other to create an atmosphere of beauty, of hope and of victory, the victory of constancy over jealousy. 

The chorus tumultuously declares to Galatea, “Acis now a god appears … murm’ring still thy gentle love”. 

You may find Acis still in Acireale, by the Jaci river, where Sicilians believe he was killed.  You may find him at the foot of the Medici Fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.  Or you might find him in the Arcadian lakeside among the twinkling illuminated gardens at the Theatre on the Lake.

Mark Aspen, July 2022

Photography by Elizabeth Wait and Jean Pierre de Fleur

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