Monday 9 November 2015

Handel's Acis and Galatea at BREMF

Catrin Woodruff - Photographer: Perly Freeman
Catrin Woodruff
Credit: Perly Freeman
Handel Acis and Galatea, Isabella Leonarda Dixit Dominus; Catrin Woodruff, Benedict Hymas, Giles Underwood, Sophie Pullen, BREMF Singers and Players, cond: John Hancorn; Brighton Early Music Festival at St. George's Church, Kemptown
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 07 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Handel's pastoral brings some appealing performances to BREMF

Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) paired Handel's Acis and Galatea with the lesser known Dixit Dominus by the 17th century nun Isabella Leonarda at their concert on Saturday 7 November 2015 at St George's Church, Kemptown, Brighton. Acis and Galatea was performed in Handel's 1739 revision, with John Hancorn conducting the BREMF Singers and BREMF Players (led by Helen Kruger and featuring Piers Adams on sopranino recorder), with Catrin Woodruff as Galatea, Benedict Hymas as Acis, Giles Underwood as Polyphemus and Sophie Pullen as Damon.

Benedict Hymas: credit Marco Borggreve
Benedict Hymas:
credit Marco Borggreve
Handel's Acis and Galatea started out as a compact, almost chamber piece; a pastoral written in 1718 for performance at the home of James Brydges (who would become Duke of Chandos) and the libretto was by various hands including John Gay and Alexander Pope. A pirate performance led to Handel reviving the work in a macaronic version mixing English and Italian (with additional music from his unrelated Italian cantata on the same theme). The 1739 revision moved it back to English, but the role of the chorus is expanded. Not a lot happens, and the rather static first half requires three very perceptive soloists to bring off Handel's sequence of pastoral arias, otherwise it can seem that we are simply waiting for Polyphemus to arrive.

Giles Underwood
Giles Underwood
Catrin Woodruff was a near perfect Galatea, singing with a lovely sense of line and very fine diction, she made the words count. She combined a nice plangent tone with warm modulated tones and a great evenness of delivery. She competed successfully with Piers Adams's sopranino recorder in the delightful Hush, ye pretty warbling birds, and was fluently confident with lovely centred feel to her delivery when duetting with the fine oboe in As when the dove. The final solo and aria was full of expressive line and depth of colour in the voice. It was unfortunate the conductor John Hancorn allowed the instruments to cover Woodruff's fine-grained tone at the opening of Heart, the seat of soft delight.
Benedict Hymas was a finely lyric Acis, bringing a superb sense of line to all the music and a gorgeous legato. But his delivery was a little too carefully deadpan so that Where shall I seek the charming fair could have done with a bit more dramatic delivery to match the character in his voice. Whilst Love in her eyes sits playing was sung with beautiful sense of line and colour in the voice, Love sounds th'alaram needed to be more rugged. It is worth bearing in mind that we can take the pastoral image too far, and in Handel's day, Acis was a role sung by the great John Beard whose robust tones encompassed the title roles in Samson and Jephtha. Duetting with Catrin Woodruff seemed to bring out the best in Hymas and the two combined character and musicality in Happy we, though perhaps they could have looked happier! It was thus unfortunate that Hymas developed a frog in his throat during the final trio and stopped singing briefly; he recovered well, but you felt that conductor John Hancorn could have stopped and allowed the movement to be started again. Hymas was most demonstrative in the accompagnato when Acis dies, singing with great expression.

Giles Underwood made a delightfully appealing monster, his eyes twinkling mischievously behind his glasses. Oh ruddier than the cherry was nicely musical with pawky comic charm though having the obbligato line played by Piers Adams on a sopranino recorder did sometimes overshadow Underwood. He was characterful and rather charming in the dialogue with Woodruff's Galatea, and his account of Cease to beauty to be suing was beautifully sung (perhaps too much so!) with fine attention to the words. In the final trio, Underwood's interjections were wonderfully robust but still musical.

Sophie Pullen, who sang Damon, has a wide range right through to Puccini and contemporary music. Regarding her performance in Handel's pastoral, we come down to matters of personal taste. Though she had a nice sense of style, I found her vibrato simply to intrusive. This was particularly true in the faster sections, so in the more lyrical Would you gain the tender creature she was far more at home.

The BREMF Singers is an amateur group, directed by John Hancorn, which performs at the festival. They fielded around 32 singers which was perhaps slightly too many given that the instrumental forces were performing one to a part. But this was far more than a choral society performance, and the choir gave performance which had a great deal of charm with a nice lightness of touch. In the Isabella Leonarda Dixit Dominus (which was without soloists but accompanied by an instrumental group) they gave a lively performance of the psalm setting which combined some rather straight vocal writing with some lovely word painting in the passagework.

This was a welcome opportunity to come across Isabella Leonarda's work; it was an interesting piece but it did seem to sit rather oddly with the Handel's secular pastoral entertainment. Acis and Galatea is always a delight and if this performance did not quite achieve perfection there were some lovely moments. And with Catrin Woodruff as Galatea we really felt BREMF's focus on women was appropriate.

Other BREMF reviews on Planet Hugill:

Lucrezia Borgia's Daughter - Musica Secreta, Celestial Sirens, Brighton Festival Youth Choir
Vision: The Imagined Testimony of Hildegard von Bingen - Niamh Cusack, The Telling, Celestial Sirens
Convent, Court and Salon - the BREMF Consort, Deborah Roberts, Clare Wilkinson, Claire Wiliams, Alex McCartney

Elsewhere on this blog:

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