German by birth and composer of no fewer than 46 operas and 30 oratorios (essentially an opera performed as a concert), George Frideric Handel traveled to Italy in 1706 where he was greatly influenced by Italian opera and singing styles before he returning to Germany in 1710. When his patron prince George, Elector of Hanover, was crowned King George I of Great Britain, Handel followed him to London and settled there in 1712. He had huge success with his Italian operas in London and went on to write his famous oratorios like the Messiah for which he is possibly best known today along with other famous works like the Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks.
Acis & Galatea was first performed in 1718 for the Earl of Carnarvon at his country estate at Cannons in Middlesex. The piece was written in the style of a ‘masque’ or a little opera. Originally an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Aces & Galatea was written in English (as was much of Handel’s later work) and was originally performed by the Earl himself with his family and friends as a country house entertainment.
In the original story Acis & Galatea are lovers but the giant Polyphemus is also in love with Galatea and will not give her up. In a fit of rage at seeing Acis & Galatea so happy together he kills Acis with a giant rock. The gods, nature and Galatea mourn the death of Acis and she uses her supernatural powers to transform Acis into a river. (the now subterranean river Acis in eastern Sicily)
I attended the performance in An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk (who were very obliging and accommodating when they heard I was reviewing, thanks guys!). The smaller scale in both size and volume of the Irish Baroque Orchestra perfectly suited this smaller venue. After a fairly brisk Sinfonia by the orchestra playing period instruments and conducted by Peter Whelan from the harpsichord we were straight into the opening chorus of ‘Oh, the pleasure of the plains’, sung by Fearghal Curtis, Cormac Lawlor, Sinead O’Kelly & Peter O’Reilly. A joyously rousing and very well sung start to proceedings accompanied by a change into country & western costumes and a touch of line dancing (I was worried about this initially!). A sort of opening showstopper if you will! The mood then darkens somewhat as Galatea played by Susanna Fairbairn enters and believes flowers left in the bar for her are from Acis but on realising they are in fact from Polyphemus, played by baritone Edward Grint, she throws them in the bin. She sings of her sadness at being parted from her beloved Acis and longs for his return which elicits sniggers and mocking looks from the chorus ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling quire’.
When Acis played by Eamonn Mulhall arrives excitedly looking for Galatea he is delayed outside the bar and prevented from entering by Damon played by Andrew Gavin. Mulhall’s bright and clear tenor voice is introduced as he enthusiastically sings ‘Where shall I seek the charming fair’ and Andrew Gavin’s ‘Stay, shepherd stay’ is delivered with skill and style. Knowing the nature of the bullying and drunken Polyphemus they try to waylay and distract Acis as they fear his return may end in tears.
The lovers are eventually reunited as their friends stare through the bar windows with both joy and worry. Acis sings of his love for Galatea ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ while Galatea tells of the pain of being parted from him ‘Oh, didst thou know the pain’. The lovers are reunited, kisses and hugs are exchanged, the bubbly is opened to celebrate and joy abounds in the little bar. Act one ends with all singing and dancing merrily to the wonderfully uplifting ‘Happy we’. Maybe things won’t end so badly after all… but as the merrymaking continues in the bar Polyphemus waits outside listening and seething.
Act two opens with the wonderful ensemble singing of ‘Wretched lovers’ by the chorus. What a contrast to the joyous mood of the opening of Act one as all see the clouds gathering and their worst fears are confirmed as Polyphemus enters, angry and drunk ‘I rage, I melt, I burn’. Edward Grint plays a very convincing drunk as he delivers the somewhat convoluted ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ to a very un-amused Galatea. Spotting his flowers thrown in the bin he breaks into a rage and proceeds to upend chairs and tables.
Damon talks Polyphemus down and softens his rage with ‘Would you gain the tender creature’ again beautiful sung by Andrew Gavin. Acis’ anger rises at the arrival into the bar of the drunken Polyphemus and in ‘Love sounds the alarm’ Mulhall wonderfully evokes his fear of confronting the stronger and more aggressive Polyphemus. Damon again tries to continue his thankless task of trying to defusing the situation and keep Acis and Polyphemus apart. Polyphemus returns to see Acis & Galatea happily together and in an explosion of rage he hits Acis with a brick on the head. As the bloodied Acis falls and dies he sings ‘Help Galatea Help, ye parent gods’ as all watch on stunned. Love and happiness are destroyed as the dead Acis is carried off stage on a stretcher. (Yes, some operas do have sad endings!)
I have to confess I was a bit concerned about what I was hearing about rural Irish pubs and line dancing during this build up to this production but though in my opinion Opera Theatre Company have possibly over-pushed the envelope with some of their interpretations (Rigoletto in the boxing ring & Carmen with the Gardaí) I tend to be impressed with the balance they strike when trying to adapt and create an accessibility for opera while also respecting the essence and intention of the works.
Performing early opera in contemporary settings can sometimes create a jarring disconnect between the music and what can be rather archaic words and phrasing set against a contemporary scene but I feel this production hit the right balance as you were immediately drawn into the drama of the story and the setting became almost incidental and literally a believable backdrop against which the primacy of the story takes place. Aside from the quality of the singing and playing, therein lies the success of this production for me, original and creative with plenty of local colour yet respectful of the original work. The singing, both chorus and solo, was strong and impressive and the acting was natural and unforced. Director Tom Creed has done a wonderful job of localising this work and yet retaining the universality of this story of love, jealousy and murder.
Irish Baroque Orchestra are here
Info about Nicolas Poussin’s ‘Acis and Galatea’ at the National Gallery of Ireland is here