Prom 24: 6th August 2001 – Late Night Handel

Acis and Galatea

Galatea – Rosemary Joshua (soprano)
Acis – Toby Spence (tenor)
Damon – James Gilchrist (tenor)
Polyphemus – John Tomlinson (bass)

Academy of Ancient Music Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Paul Goodwin

Photograph of Paul Goodwin

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Reviewed by: Duncan Hadfield

Reviewed: 6 August, 2001
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The Proms’ pastoral leaning was again in evidence with Handel’s ’pastoral masque’, surprisingly receiving its first-ever complete Proms performance.

After his early visits to Italy, Handel’s desire to experience music in other countries grew. Soon after his appointment as Kapellmeister in Hanover in 1710 he decided to take an immediate twelve-month leave of absence to visit England. The Elector’s apparent generosity at agreeing to this transfer must be mitigated by the fact that, as heir to the English throne, he was simply allowing his employee to leave from his present court to his next!

Now in England, late in 1710, Handel fixed his sights on Vanbrugh’s new opera house, the Queen’s Theatre in the Haymarket, composing his first sensational success for it, Rinaldo. Handel returned to Germany in 1711, remaining in contact with friends in London; by the autumn of 1712 he was back on British soil, this time for good. Queen Anne commissioned works from him including a ’birthday ode’ and the Utrecht Te Deum. Her death in 1714 meant, of course, that Handel’s German boss was now King George I.

For Handel the omens were good. Within a few years he had added Teseo, Il Pastor Fido and Amadigi di Gaula to his roster of ’Italian’ operas. During the summer of 1717 He took up residence at Cannons, the palatial residence in Edgware of the Duke of Chandos, and it was there, initially for a private performance, that Acis and Galatea was written.

This was Handel’s second setting of the myth. The first, a serenata entitled Acis, Galatea e Polifemo, had been composed in Naples in 1708. For the English Acis – the story comes from Dryden’s translation of the thirteenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses – Handel’s barely four-page libretto is probably, and rather remarkably, a collaboration between Alexander Pope, John Gay and John Hughes, all three poets being in the Duke of Chandos’s circle.

In the Duke’s catalogue of 1720, Acis and Galatea is described as a ’Masque’. The heyday of this form had been a century before; in Handel’s treatment it receives a late flowering, especially in terms of his pastoral brief, with mime, spoken dialogue, dancing and lavish spectacle all contributing to Arcadian entertainment.

In this respect comes the first problem when rendering such a piece in the sterile concert conditions of the Royal Albert Hall. Admittedly John Tomlinson didn’t sit on the platform until required for Act 2 and crept on – vaguely sinisterly; this was nothing near enough to inject drama, or levity, into proceedings. Not much lavish spectacle here!

Leaving aside my now customary complaint of the RAH’s inadequacy as a suitable venue for intimate music, this tame Academy of Ancient Music rendition fell short of the mark. The playing of the small, period-instrument band was poised and polished enough but Paul Goodwin took a four-square approach to tempos and didn’t work sufficiently hard to maintain momentum over the span of Acis’s heterodox construction – recitative, aria and chorus. Rosemary Joshua made a pleasing Galatea and Toby Spence was a competent and mellifluous Acis; neither grabbed one’s attention, most of their words were (at least from where I was sitting) inaudible. In contrast all of the mighty Tomlinson’s words came over loud and clear, although his stentorian presence (drowning the accompaniment), suggested Hagen was taking a day off for a recuperative visit to a leafy bower.

Programming Acis and Galatea was well intentioned; its realisation was less successful. A later, more fully scored version (Handel revised Acis several times) could have been used. Equally, the AAM needs the level of preparation and period-style that marks out William Christie’s Les Arts Florissants (as on a sparkling Erato recording of the fuller 1739 edition, which exudes theatre, elegance and magic). At this Prom a decent house applauded wildly (and not only at the end!); I trudged the streets of South Kensington close to midnight somewhat less enchanted.

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