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Reviewer: David Vickers
Described by an eyewitness in June 1718 as a ‘little opera’, the origins of Acis and Galatea as an outdoor pastoral entertainment for James Brydges, the Earl of Carnarvon, at his country estate Cannons, place this delightful masterpiece in the category of an English masque emulating the Italian serenata. Whatever genre it is, it’s certainly one of Handel’s loveliest works. Gilbert Blin’s gracefully meticulous staged production for the Boston Early Music Festival presented the five characters among copies of fine art that had been part of Brydges’s collection, and some traces of the Bostonian performances are evident in photographs included in CPO’s booklet, which also reprints Blin’s erudite programme note – supplemented by an essay by the Handel scholar Ellen T Harris.
The musical direction of Paul O’Dette and Stephen Stubbs strikes an intelligent balance between sheer delectability and the astute dramatisation of moods such as playfulness (an insouciantly bubbling sinfonia), naive young love (Aaron Sheehan’s lightly elegant Acis), bumbling incompetence that descends into murderous jealousy (Douglas Williams’s firmly focused Polyphemus is a bit short on grotesque pantomime humour but instead conveys menace from the outset), and incrementally poignant moralising shepherds. Zachary
Wilder’s wondrously contemplative ‘Would you gain the tender creature?’ transforms Coridon’s song into a melancholic observation on the ruinous course of Polyphemus’s temper, and Jason McStoots advises the offended Acis to calm down with gently moulded embellishments in Damon’s ‘Consider, fond shepherd’. Theresa Wakim’s honeyed singing in Galatea’s ‘Heart, the seat of soft delight’ is a touching evocation of grief and cathartic sublimity, and it also has marvellous contributions from the murmuring strings and recorders.
The quintet of
singers does not quite capture the bittersweet madrigalian quality of the
opening phrases of ‘Wretched lovers’ but they charismatically describe the
monster’s ‘ample strides’, and the masque’s Purcellian closing line ‘murmuring
still thy gentle love’ is judged beautifully. The band of 10 instrumentalists
produces playing of sensational quality, personality and versatility according
to each rhetorical affect Handel’s music generates; for example, Gonzalo X
Ruiz’s seamless oboe phrasing in Acis’s ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ is a
perfect counterfoil to Sheehan’s sentimental singing, and Kathryn Montoya’s
sopranino recorder chirrups merrily in Galatea’s ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling
choir’. Continuo support is shaped imaginatively yet discreetly by O’Dette,
Stubbs, cellist Phoebe Carrai and harpsichordist Avi Stein. There is also the
added bonus of Amanda Forsythe singing the rare continuo cantata Sarei troppo
felice, its poetry probably written by Cardinal Pamphili and composed by
Handel in Rome by September 1707.