Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, HWV72
Aci Carolyn Sampson
Galatea Hilary Summers
Polifemo Charbel Mattar
The English Concert
Andrew Manze (violin)
Reviewed by: William Yeoman
Reviewed: 7 May, 2005
Venue: St John's, Smith Square, London
For the opening concert of this year’s Lufthansa Festival of Baroque Music, Andrew Manze directed the English Concert and a fine group of young singers in Handel’s serenata “Aci, Galatea e Polifemo”, which was composed in Italy.
Written in 1708, ten years before Handel’s English version, “Acis and Galatea”, this mini-opera tells the story of how the sea nymph Galatea eludes the embraces of the Cyclops Polyphemus by returning to her ocean home; how Polyphemus kills Galatea’s lover Acis in a jealous rage; and how Acis’s blood is magically transformed into a river which flows forever towards his beloved. The work was written for the wedding of the Duke of Alvito in Naples, hence the celebratory trumpets augmenting an orchestra of strings, recorders, oboe, bassoon and continuo.
“Aci, Galatea e Polifemo” comprises a series of recitatives and da capo arias strung between an opening duet and a closing celebratory trio (the singers stepping out of the characters to provide a moral commentary on the virtues of constancy in love). A further two trios punctuate the drama. Many of the arias find the solo voice doubled by an oboe; some feature obbligato parts for oboe and bassoon, oboe and violin, two recorders or two trumpets. So there was much variety in the music to be exploited by the performers; the singers especially had ample opportunity to show off their vocal dexterity by embellishing the repeated first verse of each aria.
Carolyn Sampson’s Acis was rendered with delicacy and skill; “Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta” (with oboe and violin) and “Verso già l’alma col sangue” were delightful and plangent respectively. Hilary Summers as Galatea was apposite both in stylistic and vocal terms, as the opening duet with Sampson, “Sorge il dì e tranquillo” quickly established. Her “S’agita in mezzo all’onde” in which she was accompanied by pizzicato strings and solo recorder featured some astonishing ornamentation, while her vituperative recitative “Ah, tiranno, inumano” was almost a drama in itself, such was the expressive quality of her singing. Charbel Mattar was dramatically Summers’s equal but lacked the real bass quality needed for Polifemo. The fiendishly difficult and frankly bizarre “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori”, which requires the singer to stretch in curious leaps from a low C sharp to a top A (two and two-third octaves!) didn’t quite come off in the same way as Mattar’s swaggering “Sibilar l’angui d’Aletto”. His low notes were barely audible and his top notes were just too tenorish.
Manze led the orchestra with his customary flair and imagination, following the singers’ every twist and turn, as did the instrumental soloists and continuo section. Particularly impressive was the trumpet-playing of Mark Bennett and Michael Harrison; I’ve never heard these natural instruments so bright or in-tune before.