Monday 8 April 2019

Neapolitan extravagance and a strange wedding present: Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

Handel: Aci, Galatea e Polfemo at the Wigmore Hall - drawn by Olga Cannon-Brookes
Handel: Aci, Galatea e Polfemo at the Wigmore Hall - drawn by Olga Cannon-Brookes
Handel Aci, Galatea e Polifemo; Anna Dennis, Anna Huntley, Edward Grint, Adrian Butterfield; London Handel Festival at the Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on 3 April 2019 
Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Handel's Italian serenata in a life-affirming performance

Handel’s English pastoral 'masque' Acis and Galatea was written a decade after the Italian 'serenata' Aci, Galatea e Polifemo but it was not just a translation or even a re-working for English tastes. The story (taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) was recognisable: Aci has a rival for Galatea in the giant Polifemo who crushes him with a rock but doesn’t stop loving Galatea even when she has thrown herself into the ocean. But Handel did not recycle any of the music from the Italian version in his English version (though he did recycle it elsewhere).

There was a chance to hear Handel's Italian serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo at the Wigmore Hall on 3 April 2019 presented by the London Handel Festival, with Adrian Butterfield conducting the London Handel Orchestra, Anna Dennis as Aci, Anna Huntley as Galatea and Edward Grint as Polifemo.

The first version of this story of doomed love was commissioned – rather counter-intuitively – for a glamorous wedding in Naples in 1708. Handel was 23 at the time and it is not known who the singers were, but they must have been the best money could buy. Also counter-intuitively, the shepherd Aci is a stratospherically high soprano and the nymph, Galatea, a mezzo – with the earthy qualities of a mezzo (the chances are these were two castrati in Naples). The giant Polifemo has an incredibly far-flung role, going right down to the bottom of the ocean in his aria.

This is not just a showcase for spectacular voices or virtuoso instrumentalists though.
We have ample chance to see the three characters as more than mere tropes for naïve youth, sensible femininity and a bullying giant. Polifemo throws his weight around (“Ingrata!” – ungrateful one, how come you don’t fancy me back?), but he also some quite self-aware moments as he realises he is being taken for a ride. The lightweight Aci knows full well that carefree singing and flying from tree to tree is just a distraction for a broken heart. And Galatea just wants to be left alone to wallow. All stunningly sung, and there was just enough elbow room for them to enter and exit in character, rather than looking like they had got on the Northern Line at Kennington in rush hour.

The band could definitely have used a bit more space for the sound to go (as well as their elbows). Once my ears had got used to this, I particularly enjoyed the way the writing (and the playing) matched the characters and their state of mind: breezy and later jittery oboe for the shepherd, sobbing violin, the slithery snakes and the depths of the ocean.

Handel: Aci, Galatea e Polfemo at the Wigmore Hall - drawn by Olga Cannon-Brookes
Handel: Aci, Galatea e Polfemo at the Wigmore Hall - drawn by Olga Cannon-Brookes
This repertoire has a ready-made audience. And not a very diverse one. All the conversations I eavesdropped on seemed to be about the Baroque circuit – who’s seen what, who’s got tickets for what. This was not a life-changing evening out, but rather a life-affirming one. I wonder what its original Neapolitan dedicatees made of it.

Anna Huntley will be performing Robert Hugill's song cycle Quickening and Frank Bridge's Three Songs for mezzo-soprano, viola and piano with Rosalind Ventris (viola) and William Vann (piano) at Conway Hall on Sunday 5 May 2019, as part of the Robert Hugill in focus event with James Newby (baritone). Further details from the Conway Hall website

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Italian charm with a French accent in Vivaldi's La Senna Festeggiante from Jonathan Cohen and Arcangelo  (★★★★) - concert review
  • A stylish My Fair Lady at the Komische Oper in Berlin (★★★★) - opera review
  • Making Bach's music visible: the St John Passion staged by Peter Sellars with Simon Rattle and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (★★★★) - concert review
  • More than just Costly Canaries: Bridget Cunningham on re-capturing Handel and the importance of research  - interview
  • Bach CD round up: Violin, piano, harpsichord, organ - recent instrumental discs - CD review
  • A stirring revival: Hubert Parry's Judith in a triumphant performance from William Vann, the Crouch End Festival Chorus and London Mozart Players at the Royal Festival Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen: Cello Concerto (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Beyond Frankenstein: I chat to Emmy award winning sound-designer and composer Mark Grey - Interview
  • Brilliant re-invention: Handel's Berenice from London Handel Festival & Royal Opera (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Unrelenting darkness and miasma in the East End labyrinth: premiere of Jack the Ripper at ENO (★★★★½) - opera review
  • From newspaper article to opera: our journey creating our new opera The Gardeners  - feature article
  • Keeping it fresh: conductor David Hill on the challenges of performing Bach's St Matthew Passion annually with the Bach Choir - interview
  • Period charm & fizzing performance: Messager's Les p'tites Michu from Palazzetto Bru Zane  (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Home


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