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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Acis and Galatea (1718)
Galatea – Danielle de Niese (soprano)/Lauren Cuthbertson
Acis – Charles Workman (tenor)/Edward Watson
Damon – Paul Agnew (tenor)/Steven McRae, Melissa Hamilton
Polyphemus – Matthew Rose (bass)/Eric Underwood
Coridon – Ji-Min Park (tenor)/Paul Kay
The Royal Opera Extra Chorus
Dancers of the Royal Ballet
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Christopher Hogwood
Wayne McGregor (director and choreographer)
rec. live, Royal Opera House, London, 8 April 2009
Region Code 0, Aspect Ratio 16:9, Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo and DTS
OPUS ARTE OA1025D [110:00]

Experience Classicsonline

Acis and Galatea is an absolutely delightful work, one of Handel’s great masterpieces, but what on earth is it? Is it an oratorio, a masque, an opera or something else altogether? For its Handel anniversary production in 2009 Covent Garden decided that it was a mix of all these and its triumphant staging gives us a rare opportunity to see the combined talents of both the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet on the same stage. By the way, if you’re more interested in the debate over Acis’ form then this is dealt with in a most informative way by Andrew V Jones’ scholarly booklet note for this release.

Wayne McGregor’s main idea for this production is to have each singer shadowed by a dancer – as listed above – and for the dancer to mirror, shadow or suggest the emotions they are expressing. It works remarkably well. While there are no official dances per se in Handel’s score the lithe, flexible rhythms that abound in the music seem to cry out for a physical interpretation. It’s a neat idea that, crucially, informs our understanding of the music and the characters rather than getting in the way. The most effective moments are towards the end of Act 1 when we see the dancers approach one another and then gradually intertwine as Acis and Galatea give in to their mutual love. Polyphemus’ dancer is particularly interesting: when the singer is at his most active the dancer is almost entirely still and the situation is reversed for when the singer is at peace, an interesting comment on the psychology of the “monster”.

Dancers aside, the star of the show is undoubtedly the delectable, delightful de Niese by whom, I admit, I was entirely smitten. She is strikingly beautiful to look at on stage but this would count for little were it not for her remarkably lovely voice. Her light soprano is bright and blithe throughout Act 1 and full of pathos for Act 2 – Heart, the seat of soft delight is meltingly lovely, perhaps the highlight of the set. Added to this is her visible sense of wide-eyed wonder at the events unfolding around her, the very type of pastoral innocence. The climax of the evening comes at the end when, having transformed Acis into the fountain, she dances with his spirit/dancer showing physical awareness and adaptability quite remarkable for a singer. Next to her Charles Workman, dressed in a shepherd’s tatty jumper and trousers, is disappointingly workaday. His voice, while not unpleasant, sounds hollow and pale and he cannot do justice to Handel’s lovely melodies. Love in her eyes lacks the beguiling wonder it should carry and Love sounds th’alarm is weak rather than heroic. Paul Agnew is an effective Damon and Ji-Min Park’s Coridon has accented English but a fine tenor voice. Matthew Rose is a very fine Polyphemus, threatening yet humorous at the same time, singing with a rich, full bass that is exciting and vibrant without being over-dominant. The trio, The flocks shall leave the mountains, is very effective, bringing out the best in all three protagonists.

McGregor creates an idyllic pastoral setting which slowly decays. The opening scene is straight out of Cranach but as the opera progresses it is stained and tainted by what he calls, in a short extra film, “the bodily fluids of the opera” so that by the time of Acis’ murder the action plays out in an almost apocalyptic staging. A few subtle ruins and stuffed animals suggest ancient Greek pastoral without ramming it down our throats. There is plenty of room for the dancers to move without distracting from or being distracted by the setting.

Orchestral duties are done by the OAE in the pit, an ensemble who know this music inside out and it shows with delectable string sound and some beautiful wind solos. Hogwood loves the bouncy rhythms of Handel’s textures. Don’t be put off by an excessively slow opening chorus: it soon gives way to much more energetic pacing. The reduced chorus sing most effectively, Handel’s counterpoint shining through in their transparent textures, particularly towards the end.

All told, then, this production looks great and, Workman aside, sounds fantastic too. I found it very convincing and if you’re going to stage Acis then this is as effective a way of doing it as any I can think of.

Simon Thompson

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