It is 195 years since the last full-stage performance of “Acis and Galatea” at the Royal Opera House, but just 14 since the only production ever given on its main stage of “Dido and Aeneas”, so it was a very happy inspiration that the 250th-anniversary of the death of Handel and the 350th of the birth of Purcell should see these works united.
Both Purcell and Handel might lay claim to be our ‘national’ or at least our ‘London’ composer, so the venue is especially apt, although one might be forgiven for wondering how these sublime little works have so far eluded The Royal Opera when room has frequently been found for lesser pieces. However, that’s just the grumpy old Handelian in me talking, which may give you warning of what’s to follow.
“Dido and Aeneas” remains Purcell’s most often performed and subtly influential work – would we have had Britten’s “The Rape of Lucretia” without it? Shaw’s phrase about the composer’s “unapproached art of setting English speech to music” may seem exaggerated in the wake of Britten and Vaughan Williams, yet there is something deeply individual about the way in which Purcell blends language and instrumentation.
To convey the spirit of his mixture of tragic nobility and almost comical malevolence the ideal cast would be made up entirely of genuine baroque specialists, in which the UK is exceptionally rich. Well, I suppose three out of nine isn’t too bad, and it beats the one out of five offered in “Acis and Galatea”.
Sarah Connolly’s Dido is a known quantity, and despite her announced throat infection she gave a dignified, finely phrased account of both the great lament and ‘Ah, Belinda’. Lucy Crowe was nervous at first, flattening out one or two of her words a little too much, but her bright, agile voice is ideal for Belinda’s music. Iestyn Davies sang the Spirit from off-stage, and filled the auditorium with the true sound of a real baroque singer. All three were making house debuts.
Of the rest of the cast, perhaps the less said the better: not for the last time during this evening, I found myself asking the question, why do we have to import the undistinguished singing of the likes of Lucas Meachem’s Aeneas when there are so many fine British baritones around? Ji-Min Park’s Sailor shows promise, but with some way to go, Anita Watson’s Second Woman was marred by cloudy diction, and Sara Fulgoni’s Sorceress employed too many intrusive breaths and not enough sense of malice. It was a cute idea to have the two witches as Siamese Twins, so it was a pity that the singing of Eri Nakamura and Pumeza Matshikiza was less than engaging.
Wayne McGregor’s austerely beautiful production was first seen at La Scala in 2006, and it looks ravishing in Hildegard Bechtler’s designs – McGregor keeps things nobly simple, as is right for the piece, and the starkness of the surroundings, even in the hunting scene, forms an appropriate backdrop for the tragedy. I found the dancing hard to get used to: attuned to expecting something rather more ‘pastoral, the steps did not quite mesh with the sentiments.
I felt the same about the dancing in “Acis and Galatea” until I realised how deeply the production was influenced by Lucas Cranach’s iconic painting of “The Golden Age” (1530) where naked figures dance with angular movements around a Golden Apple Tree, “…two and two, necessary coniunctuion / Holding eche other by the hand or the arm / Which betokeneth concorde” (Elyot / Eliot). It was still a little disquieting to find ‘Oh! The Pleasures of the Plains!’ accompanied by what at first looked like an aerobics class, but I became attuned to it after a while and was able to savour some very graceful dancing, especially from Eric Underwood and Edward Watson.
We were once more in the world of singers for whom the baroque is not really their bread and butter, with the notable exception of Paul Agnew, another (absurdly late) house debutant, who completely outshone everyone else with his gravely sensitive ‘Voice of 18th-century Reason’ of a Damon – not for the first time with this singer, he showed the rest how it should be done.
Why, I ask again, do we have to import the likes of Charles Workman’s Acis, when there are half-a-dozen tenors in London alone who could give the part the thrilling, agile singing it needs? Workman is a natural actor but he made very heavy work of both ‘Love in her Eyes’ and ‘Love Sounds Th’ Alarm’ – I was quite glad when dear old Polyphemus gave him his quietus.
Matthew Rose was clearly affected by the same ailment as Sarah Connolly, but he managed to make Polyphemus an almost sympathetic character, with his inability to get the compliments quite
right in ‘O Ruddier than the Cherry.’
If anyone can carry off a ludicrous wig and an absurd costume it is the gorgeous Danielle de Niese, and she has the opulent voice to match her looks – the trouble is, it’s just not a very Handelian one, with its rapid vibrato and tendency towards swooping into phrases. As with her Acis, though, she knows how to make you believe in her character, and ‘Heart, thou Seat of soft Delight’ had ravishing moments.
There was not much of the world of “Nymphs N’ Sheppyherds” here, and one was only occasionally aware of the rigid conventions of the Pastoral, in which nobles would indulge in a bucolic paradise without ever doing any real shepherding. The production is rather a mixture, with one backdrop redolent of the world of Poussin and Claude, and another that of a Japanese woodblock print, the stage mainly occupied by a revolving ruin / pool, the source of some unintentional mirth with a sudden deluge and the lighting of a shepherd’s fire.
Christopher Hogwood clearly relished the opportunity to lead the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment in this glorious music, managing to rein in his enthusiasm to provide tactful, eloquent support for the singers, and there was some treasurable continuo work from Julian Perkins and Jan Čižmář.
Obviously, it’s all highly recommended despite the reservations – two of the great works of their time, finally given the status they deserve and introducing some great singers in visually striking productions.
- Further performances at 7.30 p.m. on 3, 8, 11 (at 12.30 p.m.), 15, 18 & 20 April
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera