Handel’s Acis and Galatea is a peculiar piece in some ways. It was written to be performed at Cannon’s, the Edgware residence of the then Earl of Caernavon, presumably for his guests. Apparently the performance style was to have the singers sing from music stands in front of a painted backdrop. So, a sort of oratorio with curtains. It’s not uncommon to stage Handel oratorios as opera these days. Theodora is done quite often and even Messiah has been staged so it’s no great surprise that Acis and Galatea should be given a similar treatment. In fact Wayne McGregor’s 2009 Covent Garden production stages it as an opera and a ballet simultaneously combining the resources of the Royal Ballet and the Royal Opera.
It’s very effective because the piece, as one might expect, rather lacks the power of Handel’s bigger public operas and oratorios. McGregor’s approach adds visual interest and gives new ways of exploring the drama. He doesn’t just shadow a singer with a dancer. There are quite complex patterns. Sometimes singers sing and dancers dance, sometimes only one or the other is on stage and sometimes singers interact directly with the dancers most notably in the final scene where a closing unity is created by having Danielle de Niese, who sings Galatea, dance a pas de deux with Ed Watson who dances Acis. It’s very effective and pretty much justifies the casting of de Niese. I can’t think of many sopranos who could pull off the dance element (Jane Archibald maybe?).
The tension between the dance elements and singing/acting elements is reinforced by the costuming. The singers wear outfits that look like they came from Goodwill (reinforced in de Niese’s case by a wig only slightly less silly than Simon Keenleyside’s Don Giovanni wig) while the dancers wear “nude” body stockings. There’s also an interesting treatment of the idea of transformation in the set design. We start with a somewhat simplified period style set with elaborate painted backdrop which gradually becomes both harsher and more modern as the piece progresses ending up with a set that looks not unlike something Robert Carsen might use. All in all there’s a lot going on and it could definitely bear repeat viewing.
The singing is generally good. Matthew Rose is a very strong Polyphemus and Charles Workman sings prettily as Acis. Good work too from Paul Agnew as Damon. De Niese’s intonation isn’t always ideally Handelian but she’s not at all bad and the other elements of her performance make up for any slight flaws in the vocal department. The Royal Opera extra Chorus do a very nice job Christopher Hogwood and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment make for a sprightly, period appropriate sound. McGregor’s choreography is decidedly modern with an emphasis on physicality and drama rather than sheer beauty (at least as far as definitely not a dance expert me can tell). It’s very well executed by 15 members of the Royal Ballet most notably Lauren Cuthbertson as Galatea, Ed Watson as Acis and the very athletic Eric Underwood as Polyphemus.
The video direction is by Jonathan Haswell. It’s a very tricky production to film as McGregor has clearly tried to lead the eye, emphasising now the singers, now the dancers, now the whole stage. The video direction essentially uses the same method and seems to get it pretty much right. The filming and recording was done in HD and full surround sound (there’s a Blu-ray version available) and this is reflected in the excellent widescreen picture and beautifully detailed DTS 5.1 audio (LPCM stereo also on disk). There are English, French, German and Italian subtitles. Bonuses include a synopsis and cast gallery and, more importantly, a very good ten minute explanation of the production by McGregor. The booklet contains a useful essay on the piece and its history by Andrew Watson.
This made a refreshing change from older recordings of core Italian rep!