Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea
1852-63, Luxembourg Gardens
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 7 2016
Pastoral enjoyment as the Sixteen explore Handel's original version
Handel's serenata Acis and Galatea exists in a number of versions, and that most commonly given is based on Handel's expansion of the work for his performances in 1739 (though there is also a larger scale three act version in English and Italian which he created in 1732). But in many ways the original, written for the Duke of Chandos at Cannon's in 1718, is difficult to beat. The Sixteen, conducted by Harry Christophers, gave us the opportunity to hear Handel's 1718 version of Acis and Galatea at Kings Place on 7 May 2016 as part of Kings Place's Baroque Unwrapped season.
Harry Christophers conducted forces similar to those Handel would have used with just five singers as both soloists and chorus, the balance of voices (soprano, three tenors and bass) presumably reflecting what was available in the Duke of Chandos's household. At Kings Place, Grace Davidson was Galatea, Jeremy Budd was Acis, Mark Dobell was Damon, Simon Berridge was Corydon and Stuart Young was Polyphemus with an ensemble of nine instruments.
Harry Christophers' speed for the opening Sinfonia was infectiously fast, immediately involving us in the excitement but there were hints of the speed endangering ensemble. The opening chorus immediately conveyed the pastoral mood and the balance with three tenors in the middle worked well, though Grace Davidson on the top line could have afforded to give a little more. This is a work, like Handel's oratorios, where the words are important and the clarity of diction from the singers was exemplary.
Davidson's account of Galatea's opening aria, with its sopranino recorder obliggato, was a model of beauty of line and shaping, but I could have wished that she had made more of the words. This was something I came back to in Galatea's lovely 'As when the dove', and it was only in the heartbreaking final sequence of solo with chorus ('Must I my Acis still bemoan') and air 'Hear, the seat of soft delight') that Davidson gave us a real sense of Galatea's character in addition to the real musical beauties which she brought to the role.
Davidson and Jeremy Budd were joyfully carefree in the duet 'Happy We' which ended the first half, but my favourite must be the trio where Davidson and Budd sang their duet 'The flocks shall leave the mountains' with a sense of calmness and completely oblivious to Stuart Young's evoking Polyphemus' rage and fury.
Budd made quite a heroic Acis, his voice giving a strong sense of line to the high-lying role taking it closer to the world of the haute-contre than is sometimes the case. It certainly brought real character to it, and whilst Budd made an ardent lover in 'Where shall I seek the charming fair?' and 'Love n her eyes sits playing', he was suitably martial in his defiance of Polyphemus in 'Love sounds th'alarm'. When considering the casting of the role of Acis it is worth bearing in mind that when Handel revived the opera in its English two-act form in 1739 and 1740, Acis was sung by the great John Beard who would create the title role in Handel's Samson in 1743; a tenor whose voice was more robustly dramatic than purely lyric.
Stuart Young clearly had a great time singing Polyphemus and the role is indeed a great gift, but Young's characterisation all came through the music and text which made is account of 'O ruddier than the cherry' all the more delightful. Young managed to capture the role's tricky combination of the fat-ly comic with the horrifying (something the great Owen Brannigan did to perfection). He was equally characterful in Polyphemus's second aria 'Cease to beauty to be suing'.
The role of Damon is to pop up twice, each time sententiously warning Acis of the error of his ways, first telling Acis that his flocks are straying thanks to his running after Galatea, and then in the second act telling him that joys are fleeting. But Mark Dobell sang so finely and with such a beautifully burnished line that you forgave him anything and simply listened. Simon Berridge brought a great sense of character, with real singing off the words, to Corydon's solo telling Polyphemus that to gain Galatea he should woo her tenderly, not bluster.
Throughout the singers were finely partnered by the instrumental ensemble. I suspect that having a continuo of harp, lute and harpsichord might have been a bit more luxurious than Handel would have had available, but it gave a lovely richness to the sound. Oboists Hannah McLauchlin and Catherine Latham double on recorder, giving us some delightful pastoral moments.
Kings Place is a lovely size for this version of Acis and Galatea, and the performers brought out the work's real small scale charm. We were given printed librettos but hardly needed them as all concerned were finely communicative and really evoked a sense of pastoral enjoyment.
George Frideric Handel - Acis and Galatea, HWV 49
Harry Christophers (conductor)
Galatea (soprano) - Grace Davidson; Damon (tenor 1) - Mark Dobell; Acis (tenor 2) - Jeremy Budd; Corydon (tenor 3) - Simon Berridge; Polyphemus (bass) - Stuart Young
Violin 1 - Sarah Sexton; violin 2 - Daniel Edgar; cello - Joseph Crough, Imogen Seth-Smith; oboe/recorder - Hannah McLaughlin, Catherine Latham; theorbo - Eligio Quinteiro; harp - Frances Kelly; harpsichord - Alastair Ross
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