Haendel : Acis y GalateaLondres, Royal Opera House, 2009 (Video)
Director: Christopher Hogwood
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Bechtler's designs for Acis and Galatea were peculiar indeed, though it has to be admitted that even at ninety minutes, Handel padded out the opera beyond the real substance of its flimsy story. Acis loves Galatea, and she loves him. But when the ugly giant Polyphemus also makes advances on Galatea and is rejected, he takes revenge on the lovebirds by killing Acis. However, all's resolved when Galatea remembers that she's a semi-divine nymph who has the power to turn Acis into a god.
It's a whimsical story which McGregor breathes some life into thanks to the remarkable performances of the dancers from the Royal Ballet, amongst whom Edward Watson was outstanding. Cleverly, McGregor plays out the opera with two casts: the opera singers in modern dress, experiencing the plot as it's written, and the ballet dancers in a kind of neutral, asexual body sock, portraying the same characters in a godlike metaworld.
This works most powerfully at the moment when Acis is transfigured into a god, so that Danielle de Niese as Galatea dances a little pas de deux with Watson as the god version of Acis. In general, Handel's tremendous, expressive, angular score is well suited to the intensity created by McGregor's choreography, especially in the longer solo arias. However, it's somewhat spoilt for me by the bizarre sets, which range from a twee backdrop and a strange desert oasis to the figures of stuffed sheep and deer and a random pile of wood. The most risible moment comes during the duet 'Happy we', when it starts to rain or hailstone onto the little island set for the oasis. It's a shame, because McGregor's handling of the text is not uninteresting, and the musical performance is very good for this opera.
De Niese is an incomparable show woman, easily overcoming her ridiculous costume with her inherent glamour, and she sings with surprisingly powerful projection, especially given her small instrument. She's also expressive and attentive to detail. Her vibrato is too fast for my taste in this music and she could sing more smoothly in the more reflective moments, but this was a successful ROH debut and a striking role portrayal. (Click here to read our recent interview with De Niese.)
Still, it's the men who own the stage here, particularly the imposing figure of Matthew Rose as Polyphemus. In a stylised production, he added a layer of humanity that was lacking elsewhere, while in spite of an announced illness he sang with power and immense expression. A former Young Artist, Rose is one of the Royal Opera's great success stories.
Charles Workman was also excellent as Acis, though he was in danger at one point of being overshadowed by Paul Agnew's no less refined Damon. Ji-Min Park was also in his element as Coridon. Overall, the musical performance here was much more impressive, partly because the score encourages greater exuberance, and the OAE were lithe and merry under Hogwood's direction. Of the other dancers, Lauren Cuthbertson's wittily-observed Galatea and Steven McRae's supple Damon were noteworthy, though in general the performance marked a success in terms of the collaboration between the Covent Garden companies, marred only by the unappealing set design.
(Edited from Musical Criticism By Dominic McHugh)
Danielle de Niese