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James Reel
Fanfare, November 2010

As you can tell from the headnote, this production is double-cast (in one case, triple-cast), but not in the usual way; the first name listed for each character is that of the singer, and after that comes the name of the dancer(s) assigned to shadow or echo the actions and emotions of the character. It may sound contrived, but this actually is a marvelous way to amplify the text, and frankly to relieve the score of its sometimes static nature. Handel wrote Acis and Galatea as a masque, which for practical purposes today means a secular cantata stringing together da capo arias and a few choruses, and so he had no reason to fill in several important gaps in the action that would help explain character motivation or simply specify between numbers how we got from there to here. Acis doesn’t quite work as an opera, but this version directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor makes the best case for its stageworthiness without resorting to musical interpolations.

Not much happens in the pastoral prologue, in which the river nymph Galatea and the shepherd Acis make goo-goo eyes at each other, to the occasinal commentary of onlookers. Things go bad in the second half, where the jeaolous and volcanic Polyphemus eventually kills Acis; in best Ovidian fashion, the young man’s gushing blood is transformed into a river.

McGregor’s choreography fuses elements of ballet with hep Audrey Hepburn-style 1950s modern dance; the dancers, all of them excellent, do not so much act out what the singers are going on about as echo their emotions, although a few gestures do sometimes conform to specific words in the text. The cast is headed by Danielle de Niese, a fine Handel singer who also happens to look the part of a delectable nymph. In the role of Acis, however, Charles Workman’s singing is little better than, well, workmanlike—competent, but little more. Bass Matthew Rose is a rich-voiced Polyphemus, whose only fault is that he tends to miss the humor in his music (perhaps director McGregor wanted him to seem more threatening, which he certainly does). In their smaller roles, Paul Agnew and Ji-Min Park are very good, and it’s too bad Handel doesn’t give us a chance to hear more of them.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set starts off in traditional pastoral mode, but through the course of the performance gradually decays into dark abstraction as the lovers’ lives fall apart; her costumes for the singers are drawn more or less from the mid 20th-century English countryside, while the dancers wear slightly gussied-up bodysuits.

Christopher Hogwood leads typically crisp playing by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, although there’s more emotional nuance to be found in the audio-only performances under King (Hyperion), Gardiner (Archiv), and Christie (Erato, if you can find it). This version may not displace your CD favorite, but as an audio-visual presentation it’s perfectly good, and often better than that (especially when de Niese has the stage). There’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary to report about the high-definition video and audio quality; the total time in the headnote includes a bit more than 10 minutes of special features—a little documentary and the usual illustrated synopsis.

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2:11:53 PM, 28 May 2016
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