Acis and Galatea
by George Frideric Handel
Mid Wales Opera /co-production with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Brecon Baroque, with student chorus and players from Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama
Richard Burton Theatre, RWCMD, Cardiff, 30 January 2014
Glorious though much of Handel’s music is, there is a problem which puts some people off going to see his operas – his extensive use of the da capo aria. This is no less true of Acis and Galatea than it is of later full-scale operas like Giulio Cesare or Ariodante. The fact that Acis and Galatea is a development of the masque – an entertainment in the middle of a play – is not enough to redeem it from the potential tedium of the lengthy da capo aria. What does relieve the potential tedium in this production is the inventive set and staging. Designer Nicky Shaw’s unfolding box worked splendidly, with the characters dodging in and out, around and above it, providing wonderful visual variety and stopping the audience from ever getting bored.
Full credit as well to director Annilese Miskimmon for her conception of the pastoral nature of this piece. Too often pastoral equals coy and a bit prissy. Not so here and indeed there is scope for Jane Harrington as Galatea and Oliver Mercer as Acis to settle into the sensuality of their roles as the tour of this production proceeds.
Vocally the cast are all strong. Amongst the principals, I particularly enjoyed the performance of tenor Eamonn Mulhall as Acis’s friend Damon; both for the apparently effortless way he tackled the coloratura passages and for his stylish acting. Style is the key to the success of baroque opera. For the instrumentalists this is something clearly established and most skilfully executed by Rachel Podger and the other players of Brecon Baroque, the ensemble augmented for this performance (and some others) by students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. In keeping with the first performance of the work at Cannons in London in 1718, there is no bassoon in the orchestra. But while some form of eighteenth century authenticity is achievable in the playing, this is harder to do surely in the staging. No stage directions survive for the first performance, although the Scottish musicologist George Hogarth, in his Musical History, Biography and Criticism published in 1835, tells us that Handel said that there would be ‘no acting on the stage’ in the first production. What is certain is that what might have appealed to audiences of the time is unlikely to be matched by twentieth-first century tastes.
I think the style achieved in this performance was a good balance between period authenticity and contemporary sensibilities. When the chorus – a solo quartet (plus Damon) augmented by students singing from the side of the stage – enter for the first chorus and hold hands as they sing of ‘happy nymphs and happy swains’, the effect is charming, not at all cloying. I think this is achieved by the clarity of direction and commitment of performance. The chorus – Caroline Kennedy, Chloe Hinton, Thomas Herford and Andrew Mahon with Eamonn Mulhall singing as a fifth member when not required to be Damon – were first class throughout, with the stage-side student chorus adding a bloom and depth to the sound.
Played without an interval, this production starts the second act with the chorus making dramatic gestures to announce the arrival of the apparently fearsome cyclops Polythemus, whose single eye has replaced the sun to gaze upon the hapless lovers at the end of Act One. The trouble is that when he appears this monster is a bumbling one who would not frighten a pussy cat, though in fairness that is how John Gay’s libretto presents him. Indeed, Handel’s music for O Ruddier than the Cherry would not fit well with a really scary monster. Matthew Stiff acquits himself well enough as Polythemus, to be sung in some performances during the tour by Alan Ewing, for whom this is a signature role.
Although Polythemus kills Acis, it is with a light touch, for he is destined to be made a god by Galatea, who sings in recitative:
’Tis done! Thus I exert my pow’r divine;
Be thou immortal, though thou art not mine.
And so he becomes a sweetly murmuring fountain and the opera ends happily as it begins, a sweet confection which will not give you indigestion.
In their twenty fifth season, Mid Wales Opera are in Cardiff for the first time in many years, and in a first co-production with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. MWO are rightly proud of their record in promoting young singers over the years, citing Mary Plazas and Christopher Maltman amongst those who were given early opportunities with the company. There is a strong roll-call of Welsh singers in the list too, including Catrin Aur who sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in 2012 and Lady Billows in last year’s Albert Herring, and who began her vocal studies at RWCMD. Having a group of student singers on stage and student players joining the orchestra is a new development for MWO. These singers and players have been given what is, in effect, an extended masterclass as well as the experience of being part of a professional company. All credit to MWO and RWCMD alike for doing this work for the future of opera, and for continuing to bring quality work to parts of Wales where people would otherwise never see opera, especially in these days of financial cutbacks in the arts when it must be tempting to take an easier route.