LHF: Handel – Acis & Galatea

Handel: Acis & Galatea
London Handel Orchestra, Laurence Cummings
St John’s, Smith Square. 21 March 2018

The first of the London Handel Festival’s anniversary events was a performance of Acis and Galatea, first performed in 1718 at Cannons, the palatial mansion north-west of London where James Bridges, by then the Earl of Carnarvon and later to become Duke of Chandos, demonstrated the enormous wealth he had gathered through his position as Paymaster General to the army. Cannons became the only example in England of a Germanic-style princely court orchestra (24-strong) outside the royal family. Handel was house composer from 1717-19 working under Pepusch. It had originally been a small-scale masque, probably performed outdoors, with a small orchestra and five singers, who together formed the chorus. Considering it was the anniversary of the 1718 premiere, it was rather curious that the work was here presented in its 1739 incarnation – one that Handel himself never heard.

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The interior of St John’s, Smith Square (built at the same time of the premiere of Acis) was transformed by director Martin Parr into a cross between some sort of down-market 1980’s rave and a children’s party, with a pall of dry ice engulfing the audience as they entered, party balloons hanging over the mist enveloped orchestra, and rather innocuous drapes suspended from scaffolding, for no apparent reason. It was the first of many production issues that I felt really didn’t work. That said, and more anon, musically it was well worth the trip.

The London Handel Orchestra, the house band of the festival, was on very good form, with notable contributions from Catherine Latham and James Eastaway on recorders and oboes, and David Miller playing continuo theorbo. Director Laurence Cummings directed from the harpsichord, set back towards the rear of the orchestra to allow for some central performing space. The 19-strong Pegasus choir formed the chorus of ‘nymphs and swains’, all dolled up in what looked like their underwear, but was probably intended to represent the sort of shabby-chic outfits that 18th-century aristocrats imagined that peasants wore. An amateur choir, they made a good job of the various tricky acting and singing situations they had to contend with, including singing while wandering around the audience and from the side galleries, as well as looking rather silly wandering around with suspended paper cutouts of grossly overfed birds to represent the ‘pretty warbling quire’ of Galatea’s opening aria. One of the highlights of the evening was the Pegasus choir’s chorus ‘Mourn, all ye muses!’ with its superbly sung hushed a capella concluding ‘Ah, the gentle Acis is no more’.

Among the many directorial oddities was the apparent inability of characters to spot the person or thing they were looking for. On his arrival, Acis wandered around the auditorium and stage singing (usually to the fat paper birds) ‘Where shall I seek the charming fair’, despite frequently walking past and sometimes almost stepping over the prone Galatea. When he eventually managed to spot her lying, they immediately separated to the far ends of the stage in what seemed like an awkward initial meeting on what was probably going to be a very short blind date. Only when it got to the ‘Happy we!’ bit did they finally get together, to the accompaniment of a barrage of balloons projected into the audience from the stage and gallery.

In the following scene, the entire cast, bar one, faced the audience proclaiming ‘Behold the monster Polypheme! See what ample strides he takes!’. Several members of the audience looked around for his expected arrival from the back of the audience, but bizarrely, he eventually popped out from a curtain at the back of the stage, behind and out of sight of the singers who had apparently beheld his ample strides. Was I the only member of the audience who wanted to yell out ‘He’s behind you!’? And then, in a Monty Pythonesque ‘Brave Sir Robin’ moment, Acis immediately ran away – a staging problem caused by running the two acts together. For much of the action, Acis and Galatea were sitting or lying on stage, completely invisible to anybody not sitting in the front few rows, a directorial oddity that should perhaps have been changed after the first-night performance two days earlier. The ‘gentle murmuring stream’ that the semi-divine Galatea turns the crushed remains of Acis into (and which, incidentally, still exists on the eastern coast of Sicily), was represented by an enormous vibrant blue ribbon threaded through the chorus, and looking nothing like a stream. And finally, for reasons that completely escaped me, the work ended with the entire chorus briefly unveiling brightly coloured umbrellas.

Lucy Page (pictured) was very effective if slightly underpower Galatea, while Nick Pritchard was a lyrical Acis. Edward Grint projected Polyphemus’s bluff and bluster well, although he came over a rather too nice to end up murdering Acis. This he seemed to do, rather curiously, by wrapping him up in his coat and giving him a big hug, rather than crushing him with a boulder. Damon was the impressive tenor Jorge Navarro Colorado. Laurence Cummings kept the momentum at a sensible pace, once he had galloped through the opening Sinfonia, conjuring up a veritable torrent of tsunami proportions, rather than the intended gentle murmuring sound of the libretto’s ‘purling streams and bubbling fountains’.

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