The tercentenary this year of Acis and Galatea (often described as a “Pastoral opera in two Acts”) has elicited a flurry of interest in this charming masque – perhaps Handel’s most ravishing score. Aside from staged productions by the London Handel Festival and English National Opera, comes this equally vivid interpretation with the handful of roles well-characterised, and the score enlivened by the crisp and spirited rhythmic articulation by Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company.
The performance cuts a dash in the brisk Overture and opening numbers, but it settles down for a more sensitive and varied reading for the subsequent sections. Overall there is freshness to Curnyn’s direction that evokes appropriately the Arcadian world of an innocent love-story murderously interrupted by the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus. The small chorus – presumably the five soloists in ensemble, with the addition of Rowan Pierce, as no other singers are credited in the booklet (which includes the text) – ensures that the choral numbers are executed cleanly, and the incisive attack on the imitative lines of ‘Oh, the pleasure of the plains’ gives the music bite and impetus, drawing the listener into the intimacy of this enchanted world, and the open acoustic of St-Jude-on-the-Hill gives the music room to breathe and an impression of the outdoors.
Crucially, also, there is space for Allan Clayton to bring Acis to life with his warmly ardent, mellifluous singing, which is unaffectedly expressive. Likewise Lucy Crowe combines assurance and control as his lover, the nymph Galatea, with a musical delicacy that foreshadows the vulnerability of their short-lived happiness. Neal Davies provides fearful heft as Polyphemus but without any unprepossessing growl or roughness in tone, preserving the pristine quality of this recording in general: both ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ and ‘Cease to beauty to be suing’ are realised with bounce and balletic grace respectively. In the smaller parts of Damon and Coridon, Benjamin Hulett and Jeremy Budd distinguish themselves (in both senses) by the softer grain of their singing as compared with Acis, and all three tenors tackle the higher registers of Handel’s writing without the whining strain of some.
If the chorus ‘Mourn all ye muses’ might have found a more lamenting pain in its stuttered phrase on “Ah, the gentle Acis is no more” as it reflects on the central tragedy of the drama, the stoical oboe, and vocal expression of Crowe, in ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan’ more convincingly captures the overall temper of this performance. The lively Minuet of the concluding chorus, celebrating the transformation of Acis into immortality as a fountain, sets the seal on Curnyn’s enticing reading which takes its place alongside those by Robert King on Hyperion and William Christie on Erato as the most rewarding in this composition.