George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708)
Aci - Ruth Rosique (soprano); Cristina Banchetti (mime);
Galatea - Sara Mingardo (mezzo); Luisa Baldinetti (mime);
Polifemo - Antonio Abete (bass); Sax Nicosia (mime);
Cappella della Pietà de’Turchini/Antonio Florio
Davide Livermore (director and set designer)
rec. Teatro Carignano, Turin, 18-19 June 2009.
Region code 0 – all regions. 16:9 picture ratio. NTSC 5.1 and Linear PCM stereo.
Subtitles in Italian (original) and English, French and German.
DYNAMIC DVD 33645 [98:00]

Don’t confuse this work, variously described as a cantata or serenata a tre, with the better-known English masque or pastoral opera Acis and Galatea which Handel composed for performance at Cannons ten years later. Though he borrowed extensively from the Italian version in several operas, the two versions of the story of Acis and Galatea have little in common apart from the quality of the music and the source of the plot, Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In brief, the nymph Galatea is loved by the shepherd Acis and reciprocates his love, but not that of the giant Polyphemus, who grows increasingly insistent in pressing his suit. In a jealous rage, Polyphemus destroys Acis by hurling a huge rock at him. The gods take pity on Galatea and allow her to merge in the sea with Acis, now transformed into a river.

I frequently find myself enjoying the audio-only aspects of opera DVDs where I very much warmed to the performance and was put off by unnecessarily off-beat direction, but I have to say that this takes the biscuit. I’d better start by welcoming the fact that this is the first DVD recording of this charming early Handel work, then get my disappointment out of the way.

For some completely unfathomable reason, as you will see from the cast list above, we have two each of the protagonists – one to sing and another, similar but not quite identical in appearance and garb, to mime the emotions of the characters, as if they were not apparent from what they sing. Directors appear to be increasingly apt to treat audiences as too unintelligent to understand the action and in need of supplementary assistance, as in the recent recording of Handel’s Admeto where Japanese dancers mime the agonies about which the king is singing at the opening, just in case we don’t get the point. (Unitel Classica DVD 702008 – see review).

Even worse, the Stuttgart version of Wagner’s complete Ring is marred by such distractions as Mime banging on a plate when he is supposed to be attempting to re-forge the sword Nothung, a feat later accomplished by a loutish Siegfried on a furnace in a corner of a domestic kitchen. (Euroarts DVD 2057368 – see review.) Such nonsense distracts from the music, as it does again here.

Davide Livermore’s name on the box as director and designer should have warned me of what was to come. MusicWeb Seen and Heard reviewer Jack Buckley encountered some of director his work at last year’s Rossini Opera Festival. In the production of Rossini’s Demetrio e Polibio, he noted that:

Davide Livermore’s direction piled meaninglessness onto meaninglessness... For goodness sake don’t try to read any meaning into any of this: meaninglessness is clearly the order of the day... This is not so much theatre within theatre as theatre without theatre. (See review).

On this occasion, however, he concluded that it very nearly worked: the Rossini plot is, in any case, as JB puts it, a mish-mash. In Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo I found the direction an absurd distraction – after one run through, I had to listen to the music sans picture, in which case this became for me an audio-only experience, to be compared with the only other available recording, on Virgin, under the direction of Emmanuelle Haïm (5455572, two CDs). Sara Mingardo features as Galatea on both recordings, with Sandrine Piau as Aci and Laurent Naouri as Polifemo and the accompaniment provided by the Concert d’Astrée on the Virgin CDs.

You’ll find my review of the errant Stuttgart Wagner interwoven with my appreciation of the Reginald Goodall ENO cycle, which Chandos have now issued at an attractive price on a single 8GB USB memory stick. Goodall restored my sanity, as rehearing the Haïm recording did on this occasion.

I recommended that Virgin set in my April 2009 Download Roundup and I stand by that recommendation now in preference to the new recording. You can find two of the items from the Virgin set, one each from Polifemo (solo) and Aci and Galatea (in duet) on the two-CD anniversary edition of Handel Arias and Duets on Virgin 6960352. As Göran Forsling writes, “this set makes a fine addition and in many cases the readings included here must be ranked among the very best” (see review) – I warn you, however, that the quality of what you hear will make you want the complete set of Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, and probably those of several of the other works, too.

Though Mingardo sings well on both versions, she seems to share my lack of enthusiasm for the new production – I imagine that it was hard enough trying not to laugh at all the antics, let alone sing to her best ability – and the other two singers are good, but no match for their counterparts on Virgin. Perhaps they would have done better if they had not been constantly yoked to their emoting partners. Nevertheless, my preference for the singers on the Virgin set is comparative: Ruth Rosique’s soprano voice sounds well on its own and blends well with Sara Mingardo’s mezzo.

Laurent Naouri on Virgin copes admirably with the extraordinarily wide range of Polifemo’s part. Antonio Abete on the DVD is somewhat less secure at the top and bottom of his range; though he makes a visually powerful Polifemo, thanks to the make-up department who have given him and his double an horrendous slash across one eye, he’s less impressive, less menacing vocally. Handel gives him some fine music, as when he expresses his hope that Galatea will not always treat him thus (Non sempre, no, crudele, part 1, track 8); here and throughout Abete mostly makes a decent, but not ideal interpreter of the role.

The orchestra and conductor are never less than efficient, with a good sense of baroque style, but the playing cannot match that of their rivals on CD. Compare the two versions of the Overture – a movement from an Op. 3 Concerto on Virgin and a Siciliano on the DVD – and the Italian players emerge from the comparison sounding just a little ragged. On this occasion a good regional orchestra is no match for an ensemble of superb baroque specialists.

From what we see at the opening, this is a beautiful regional theatre. I was less impressed by the scenery depicting the interior of an indeterminate building with sand-strewn floor (the beach?), flaming candles, which really should receive the attention of the Health and Safety Executive and a rolling cloudscape, sometimes changing to butterflies, or foreshadowing Polifemo as he approaches, projected onto two of the walls – yet another distraction. The original cantata or serenata was presumably performed without any scenery, but the revival at the Haymarket Theatre of a conflation of the Italian and English versions prescribed a pastoral setting quite different from what we have here. The bed may be a fairly obvious prop, except that some pretty adult material takes place on the floor, but the step-ladder – apparently left behind by some painters – seems somewhat superfluous, other than for Aci and occasionally Galatea to climb to do some emoting.

At the beginning of the second part it seems as if we have lost the second pair, with the singers alone on the stage – but not for long. The explicitness of some of the ensuing goings-on suggests that the recording should have been awarded a 15 rating.

The camerawork is generally very effective. The picture quality is good, as is the sound, especially when played via an audio system. The notes are brief but informative and there is a decent synopsis, backed up by idiomatic subtitles. This is good in parts, but there are too many distractions for me to recommend other than that you seek out the recording directed by Charles Medlam on Harmonia Mundi, with Emma Kirkby, formerly available at budget price, or the Haïm recording on Virgin.

Brian Wilson

Too much nonsense in the direction mars a decent, often good, performance.