Buxton International Festival – Handel’s Acis and Galatea

Acis and Galatea – Masque in two Acts to a libretto by John Gay [sung in English with side-titles]

Galatea – Anna Dennis
Acis – Samuel Boden
Damon / Coridon – Jorge Navarro Colorado
Polyphemus – Edward Grint
Chorus – David de Winter

Early Opera Company
Christian Curnyn

Martin Constantine – Director
Anisha Fields – Designer
Ben Pickersgill – Lighting designer

3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 12 July, 2021
Venue: Buxton Opera House, Buxton, Derbyshire, UK

It would be too obvious a ploy to locate Handel’s Arcadian masque Acis and Galatea in any significant way in Buxton itself, at the heart of the Peak District, one of England’s great national parks. Instead a few brief slides of its landscapes are shown at the outset to draw an appropriate connection in Martin Constantine’s production which transforms this episode from Greek mythology into an academic conference on the topic “The games we play: a study of worldly and unworldly love through Acis and Galatea”. Such a conference itself might gesture towards the many varied talks and discussions which also comprise a significant part of the annual Buxton Festival. The concept fizzles out by Act Two, however, though that is rather a trap of his own devising which Constantine falls into since, once the slides have run the gamut of the initial presentation of each character and pathology of love they embody, there is no scope for development of this idea.

Consequently, the production fails to decide exactly to what extent it pursues such an alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) consistently in dissecting the phenomenon of love and raising each of Handel’s episodes up for dispassionate scrutiny, or whether it is to be seen somewhat more simply and less distancing for the audience, as a jealous, murderous tragedy among the participants of a conference which, for no particular reason, is set in 1962. It could be both, but the manner in which the furniture is removed from the stage towards the end is clunky and shatters any seamless transition between these two possible framings of the work.

Polyphemus’s neurotic rages are best characterised here, in Edward Grint’s compelling performance as a lone psychopath, first gorging on chicken legs; killing Galatea’s little caged birds, presaging the manner in which he will later fatally divide the happy lovers; and creepily and obsessively wearing Galatea’s silk dressing gown. The latter Act is paralleled in Acis’s own descent into amorous neurosis as he manically dresses himself in five or six blazers, one on top of the other – presumably as a feeble defence against Polyphemus’s menaces.

The Arcadian idyll is restored at the end as the characters appear amidst a field of golden corn, removing their overgarments down to their vests in slow gyrations. The production misses a glib trick by not drawing a connection with Buxton as a spa town and producer of a widely available bottled mineral water, and the fact that in the myth Acis is granted immortality after his death by being turned into a spring. In theory the stripping down at the conclusion might have worked as a representation of the characters’ restoration of peace of mind and freedom, in contrast with the earlier deranged dressing up. But in practice it looks like an easy theatrical gesture designed to titillate a jaded audience after sixteen months of lockdowns and restrictions with very little or no opportunity to attend live theatre.

The performance of the music itself does not especially help in answering the question as to which interpretation of the production one might settle upon. Christian Curnyn leads the Early Opera Company in a measured and solid reading of the score, maintaining an effective pace throughout. But it is not varied a great deal, for example by imposing any affect upon individual arias, or bringing out any particularly infectious rhythms or timbres, except momentarily, as in the yearning suspensions of the oboes in the Overture, or the ebullient meter of ‘Happy we’, so the interpretation overall is fairly neutral.

That serves as a springboard for cogent accounts of the vocal parts by the soloists. Anna Dennis’s full-toned, operatically engaged Galatea suggests a singer fully signed up to the cut and thrust of Handel’s drama, as do the subtle inflections of Grint’s realisation of the ‘monster’ Polyphemus, giving his performance a sinister edge. By contrast Samuel Boden’s cooler and steady rendition sets the role of Acis at more of a distance from the drama, though he maintains that whilst having to execute some fussy and distracting action on stage.

Jorge Navarro Colorado takes on both Damon and Coridon becoming, in turn, the leader of the conference and then something of a psychotherapist to Polyphemus and Acis. In these high tenor roles he projects a generally dispassionate tone, if tinged with an occasional nasal rawness. As the soloists all combine to sing the choruses, the ensemble is rounded out by David de Winter, offering a plangent alto line, as well as bringing on a (model) sheep from time to time in ironic evocation of the work’s rural setting. The latter gimmick aside, there are certainly some intriguing ideas in this production, but they fall short of coming together as a convincing whole.

Further performances on 18 and 20 July

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