In a co-presentation with the Peninsula Summer Music Festival, the Organs of the Ballarat Goldfields Festival offered a rare treat recently — a performance of Handel’s early English opera, Acis and Galatea. Under the musical direction of Donald Nicholson and Julia Frederdorff and vocal coaching and the direction of the semi-staging in the hands of soprano Sophie Daneman, this production was the outcome of the auditioned entry to an “academy” to expose young singers and instrumentalists to the experience of preparing and performing a full-length opera (albeit a small one) within a short period — apparently just four days concerted rehearsal. Acis and Galatea, the second treatment Handel gave this theme in the space of just a decade, was a really felicitous choice, filled with the kind of genius Handel routinely produced through his career, but with the slight lumpenness that characterises a lot of his early works. This is a work I have known as a recording since I was a teenager and it was thrill to see it live.
Acis and Galatea is, like it Italian predecessor, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, essentially a three-hander. Like that Italian predecessor, it is also a very unevenly dealt three-hander although at least in the case of Acis and Galatea, there is some vocal differentiation between the three hands — Acis is here a tenor, while he is a soprano castrato playing to a female soprano in the Italian Aci. But just as in Aci, the two most significant parts are rather thinly drawn, notwithstanding John Gay’s very fine poetry. Roberta Diamond sang a limpid although somewhat characterless Galatea. Ryan O’Donnell was handed the part of Acis and, to my mind, this was an unfair call – the part is written for the English equivalent of an haute contre, frequently sailing above the staff, and the tessitura seemed to sit about a tone too high for O’Donnell, who was frequently forced to a resort to a kind of parlante style to navigate some of the top notes.
The real character part, as in Aci, is the part of Polyphemus, sung in this performance by Gregory Bannan. Bannan actually did a very capable job with what is rangy music, but his is a very light voice and Polyphemus in Acis needs some measure of the heft of the much more taxing role in the Italian version, one of the most phenomenally difficult bass roles Handel ever wrote. Bannan used his monstrous height (he is incredibly tall) to good effect, almost crushing Acis and Galatea just through sheer force of altitude, but his characterisation lacks the tragi-comic pathos I think Handel wants.
Handel wrote a role into the English version of this story absent in the Italian version, that of Damon. Damon’s pretty inconsequential music was split among a number of the singers in the ensemble, sometimes with an A section taken by one singer and a B by another, or parts within an A shared between singers. Daneman explained that this, and the inclusion of material from other sources, had been done to ensure all in the ensemble had enough work to do and, for this kind of didactic exercise, I don’t think there is much a problem in that. The sharing of material allowed us to hear something of the non-principal singers to good effect.
The real standouts were Alastair Cooper-Golec who, if he has the top notes, would have made an extremely fine Acis; Michael Dimovski, whose extremely sweet but sharply focussed and powerful tenor engaged heroically with part of “Love sounds the alarm” and made excellent contributions to the ensemble work; and Bethany Hill, who really ought to have been the Galatea: she sang Damon’s “Consider fond shepherd” absolutely superbly, and with very fine and affecting ornamentation.
This opera is also a real foretaste of the dramatic chorus work of Handel’s later oratorios and, by and large, they were pretty well handled, the only exception being “Wretched lovers” which almost came to grief. There were one or two inclusions from later Handel works, one from a cantata I hadn’t known ever heard of before, one from Hercules and one from Judas Maccabaeus. “There, in myrtle shades reclined” from Hercules fit well textually but was a poor fit stylistically – I could really hear that Handel had become something entirely different in the intervening period – and, while “Arm, arm ye brave” from Judas Maccabaeus got a suitably stirring reading from Simon Wright, it fit neither textually (its pleas to Heaven seemed quite out of place) nor musically. The best acting of the performance came from someone in the rear of the scene – Alexandra Matthew – whose reaction to Polyphemus was fantastically intense, and a real credit to her.
The orchestra managed pretty well, given the circumstances of an extremely short time frame for preparation, and the kinds of things you imagine would not work under those conditions (e.g. managing the multipartite structure of “Wretched lovers”) indeed did not quite work. I found myself irritated by the shrillness of Handel’s score, which is really a two-violins-and-bass affair, in a way I haven’t realised from recordings, and I suspect more depth of sound from the entire string body was really needed. The acoustic was quite unfriendly to the bass end of the spectrum, although Nicholas Pollock’s playing of the guitar seemed to come through well enough (delightfully so, indeed). The orchestra was also quite far back, and behind the scene, which cannot have helped. The “fourth hand” in the work is one of the orchestral parts, namely the oboe, played in this performance by Kailen Cresp. Cresp seemed at peak form in the various recorder obbligati, including ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling choir”, when he came to the front of stage and, like a kind of satyr, played the obbligato. What was meant to be very affecting — the obbligato that opens “Must I my Acis still bemoan”, near the end of the opera — seemed rather hesitant by comparison.
This was solid effort, and it will be interesting to see if Fredersdorff and Nicholson can sustain the momentum in future years. This project is going to be the crucible of early opera in this country.