Sunday 24 August 2014

Handel's Acis and Galatea

Cast of Eboracum Baroque's Acis and Galatea at the Grimeborn Festival - Photo Hannah Taylor
Chris Parsons with the cast and chorus
Photo Hannah Taylor
Handel Acis and Galatea; Eboracum Baroque, dir Jennifer Bakst, cond. Chris Parsons; Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 22 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Lively small scale production of Handel's pastoral serenata

Eboracum Baroque returned to the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre with a production of Handel's pastoral serenata Acis and Galatea (seen 22 August 2014) directed by Jennifer Bakst, with Gareth Edmunds as Acis, Naomi Sturges as Galatea and Charlie Murray as Polyphemus. Music director Chris Parsons conducted a five-piece instrumental ensemble.

It was frankly amazing quite how much Eboracum Baroque managed to cram into the tiny studio two at the Arcola Theatre. The period instrumental ensemble (Katie Stevens and Mark Seow, violins, George Pasca, cello, Ellie Robertson, oboe/recorder and Tom Nichol, spinet) was placed to one side, behind one row of the audience, leaving the central area for the staging. The stage set was imaginatively constructed from logs and pallets and during the overture the chorus dressed it for the wedding of Acis (Gareth Edmunds) and Galatea (Naomi Sturges). There was a chorus of eight, with Damon (Nils Greenhow) and Coridon (Angela Hicks) part of the chorus.
The original performances of Acis and Galatea in 1718 were, in fact, probably very small scale; Handel wrote the piece for performance on the Duke of Chandos's estate at Canons, possibly outdoors in the gardens. It is thought that the five soloists sang the chorus parts and Handel's orchestration is capable of being played by just seven players. This version was never revived in Handel's lifetime, when he subsequently performed it he incorporated Italian elements from his cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo and only reverted to English in 1739. Eboracum Baroque seem to have been using the original 1718 version (the only one in which the character of Coridon appears) though in 1718 the role was allocated to a tenor.

Act one consisted of the wedding celebrations for Acis and Galatea, whilst act two seemed to be something of the morning after with Wretched lovers referring not to what was to come but to the revellers hungover state. Polphemus (Charlie Murray) was a drunken lout who had crashed the wedding and caused mayhem. The setting was contemporary, the cast could have been wearing their own clothes. No designer was credited, and in one or two cases a firmer hand in the styling would have been welcome.

The problem with this sort of naturalistic approach is that Handel's serenata is not naturalistic. Though short, the arias and ensembles are still of significant length so the director must find something for everyone to do. Director Jennifer Bakst seemed to want to keep her cast in constant motion and the production had a something of a restless quality. It could have benefited from simplifying the action and allowing more static moments. The closeness of the audience and the extensive action for the chorus placed a large burden on the individual chorus members and, frankly, this did not always come off. Dramatically things rather sagged in the choruses and interludes with us being a little too aware of people 'acting'. But this was accompanied by some extremely fine musical performances all round, so the end result did come off especially as the solo performers was also of a very high order.

Naomi Sturges as Galatea in Eboracum Baroque's Acis and Galatea at the Grimeborn Festival - Photo Hannah Taylor
Naomi Sturges
Photo Hannah Taylor
Naomi Sturges made a delightful and sparky Galatea, her rich voice giving the character a great deal of depth whilst still having the flexibility for the more complex moments. Hush, ye pretty warbling quire was the delightful showpiece that it is meant to be, with some lovely recorder playing, and throughout the performance Sturges combined technical poise with great personal charm. She made Galatea interesting as well as singing with great musicality.

Gareth Edmunds as Acis in Eboracum Baroque's Acis and Galatea at the Grimeborn Festival - Photo Hannah Taylor
Gareth Edmunds (centre) and chorus
Photo Hannah Taylor
Gareth Edmunds made a personable Acis with an attractive lyric tenor voice. He was nicely ardent in a geek-ish sort of way which gave the performance great charm. Like Sturges, Edmunds was also very technically adroit and clearly had no fears of singing in close proximity to his audience. Edmunds and Sturges made a charming and highly believable couple.

Chaarlie Murray as Polyphemus in Eboracum Baroque's Acis and Galatea at the Grimeborn Festival - Photo Hannah Taylor
Charlie Murray
Photo Hannah Taylor
Charlie Murray was a completely funny delight as the drunken boorish Polyphemus, not only showing a gift for comedy but also a wonderfully dark bass voice. Like many a Polyphemus before him, Murray completely changed the tenor of the performance. His account of O ruddier than the cherry had all the necessary comic combination of music, text and character that was needed whilst his contributions to the trio The flocks shall leave the mountains had all the requisite weight and anger.

These three principals were complemented by some very fine solos from Angela Hicks as Coridon and Nils Greenhow as Damon. Hicks' account of Would you gain the tender creature was beautifully poised and rather moving. Greenhow displayed a lovely lyric tenor voice and his solos as Damon combined technical fluency with a nicely depreciating stage manner.

Whilst I might have had my doubts about the chorus dramatically, musically they could not be faulted and were a complete joy to listen to. Their musical performance completely belied the fact that they were singing in a small space, with lots of stage action and a conductor who was half-hidden by the audience. This was a real musical triumph, being both accurate and expressive. If they can make their dramatic values match their musical ones then they will go far.

The small instrumental ensemble was equally hard working. It was unfortunate the Chris Parsons' speeds for the overture were fast enough to cause something of a scramble, but this hiccup over the evening produced some very fine playing. The group of five instrumentalists managed to inject a remarkable range of colours into the score, with playing of vividness and poise. Chris Parsons, music director and founder of Eboracum Baroque,  kept the music flowing and on an even keel quite brilliantly.

Perhaps the performance would have benefited from being in a larger space, but Eboracum Baroque made the most of their surroundings and gave us performances which were often entrancing.

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