Acis – Anthony Gregory
Galatea – Madison Nonoa
Polyphemus – Will Thomas
Damon – James Way
Coridon – David Webb
Patricia Langa & Sean Murray (dancers)
La Nuova Musica
Andrew Staples – Director
William Reynolds – Designer & Lighting
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 31 March, 2022
Venue: Stone Nest, Shaftesbury Avenue, London
A masque or pastoral opera, Handel’s Acis and Galatea would have been mounted with little or no staging or scenery when first performed at Cannons in 1718. No matter then that this year’s London Handel Festival opens, not with a full-scale Italian opera as usual, but with this work in the small space of Stone Nest, a former Nonconformist chapel from the nineteenth-century on Shaftesbury Avenue. Presumably uncertainty on account of possible Covid restrictions made it safer to plan for a more modest production after the previous two disrupted years.
How Andrew Staples’s staging actually translates into meaningful dramaturgy the generalised intention of his programme note (rehashing the mantra of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party along the way) is another matter: “our world is suffering thanks to our evolved practices [i.e. the principle of the survival of the fittest – implying ‘that the desires and wishes of the strong outweigh the innocence and ideals of the weak’] which on the face of it seem to be for the benefit of the many, but are in fact for the good of the few and carry with them the consequences of deep harm and ultimately death”.
For the front rows of the audience, the cavorting and twirling of the characters in the round – sometimes on all fours, sometimes carrying LED tubes – might indeed somehow suggest that programme. But for the rest of the audience (including me) mostly sat under the chapel’s surrounding galleries, behind a sea of heads, it is impossible to tell. I think a fire is ignited at one point. Ambient electronic sounds at the beginning and end of each Act, prevailing darkness and wafting smoke, and the bedraggled manages to evoke some sort of post-apocalyptic void.
‘Survival of the fittest’ seems to be a game the audience is also invited to play, crammed in cheek by jowl on small seats around the action, and taking on any degree of risk in contracting Covid whilst it continues to swirl around the population at large. Munching of hard-boiled sweets or something like Skittles, and regular sipping from a flask by my immediate neighbour also added to the pleasure of the overall experience.
David Bates and La Nuova Music – whose performances it has been a great pleasure to praise on many previous occasions – give a somewhat routine interpretation of Handel’s ravishing score on this occasion. Admittedly the one-to-a-part ensemble employed here offers limited scope for variety in timbre and texture, and not a great deal was attempted, though the drama becomes more invigorated with the appearance of the giant Polyphemus in Act Two. Violins and oboes were occasionally weak, and the very opening chorus of the work (comprised here solely by the vocal soloists alone) seems a slight struggle by the singers to keep together with the instrumentalists as they negotiate some choreography that is confusing and distracting (both to themselves and the audience). But most numbers are imbued with a certain degree of rhythmic acuity.
Anthony Gregory is a vociferous Acis, rather than exactly mellifluous, leaving the way for the shepherds Damon (James Way) and Coridon (David Webb) to offer more considered, musically refined advice in their respective appearances. Madison Nonoa gives an unaffected, eloquent characterisation of Galatea, except for the odd flourish or octave displacement in her Airs which spoil the seamless poise of her performance. Will Thomas makes a sympathetic impression as the murderously jealous Polyphemus with an interpretation which is gilded with persuasive passion rather than lumbering force or caricature, shifting the emotional focus of the composition somewhat towards his feelings for Galatea instead of those of Acis.Musically, at least, Staples’s vision of the work bears some scrutiny, but otherwise it signifies very little. Hopefully the Festival will return to form next year with its principal staged production and fulfil its brief better by reviving one of the still too many little-known operas by the composer, in a suitable venue.
Musically, at least, Staples’s vision of the work bears some scrutiny, but otherwise it signifies very little. Hopefully the Festival will return to form next year with its principal staged production and fulfil its brief better by reviving one of the still too many little-known operas by the composer, in a suitable venue.