During the festive season, people could be forgiven for thinking that Handel only ever wrote one work: Messiah. Fortunately, the enterprising team of artists at IOpera reminded us that other dramatic works penned by this “Anglo-German composer” might also serve to lift the spirits. Handel spent the last 36 years of his life in London and Acis and Galatea (initially composed in 1718) was his first dramatic work in the English language. Set to a libretto by John Gay, who based it on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it reflects the influence of previous English pastoral operas.
IOpera’s modest set with its grassy carpet and four columns might have been a far cry from Melbourne Theatre Company’s elaborate evocation of the Forest of Arden, but it was enough to give us a combined flavor of pastoral setting and classic myth. The costumes also referenced classical design and, with the exception of some fancy headwear worn by Galatea and her two attendant nymphs and the giant Polyphemus’s horns, were simple and functional. White make-up enhanced the distancing Greek chorus and mythic elements.
Jane Magão is something of a phenomenon. And she is brave. Not only did she co-produce, direct, and sing the title role of Galatea, she also sang beautifully in the Herald Sun Aria Final the evening before opening night. Doubtless, she also had a hand in the costume-making, as she had for IOpera’s fine production of Così fan Tutte in April. Two other singers also participated in the Finals: Alistair Cooper-Golec and Darcy Carroll. This success, plus the fact that mezzo-soprano Naomi Flatman (Dorabella in IOpera’s Così) won this year’s Herald Sun Aria, are indications of the high quality of the singers performing in this company.
Extended da capo arias always present challenges for any director. The lengthy repetitions can become dramatically static, and movement for its own sake can look laboured. Magão’s direction was imaginative and appropriate, with the five singers transitioning between their roles as soloists and chorus members with admirable ease. The quality of the singing and ornamentation is a crucial element in generating musical excitement and all singers rose to the challenge. Alistair Cooper-Golec might not be the superstar castrato that Handel had at his disposal in Senesimo for his 1732 performances, but his pleasant tenor and capacity to sing long, well-controlled and musically shaped phrases was impressive. Darcy Carroll used his rich bass-baritone to characterise the lustful giant Polyphemus effectively, his “Oh ruddier than the cherry” a highlight. He also provided a firm, resonant anchor for the various choruses. As the shepherd Damon, Douglas Kelly was particularly impressive in his ornamentation of his two Airs. Tenor Joshua Erdelyi-Götz made a lively Coridon and contributed effectively to the texture of all choruses so that these five voices blended to form something much more substantial than the sum of its parts. As the only female voice, Magão was outstanding. The crystalline purity of her voice was a constant pleasure in her solos and rode above the male voices easily in the choruses. Handel tends to be stingy when it comes to non-chorus ensembles so it was all the more rewarding to hear the trio of Galatea, Acis and Polyphemus sung so satisfyingly in “The flocks shall leave the mountains”.
The chamber ensemble of nine players, including Music Director/Conductor Peter Tregear on flute, did a sterling job throughout. Special mention must be made of oboist Rachel Bullen, who played a dominant role throughout. Elissa Koppen on flute and piccolo – rather than recorder – was also a melodious contributor.
As COVID-19 continues to cast its dark shadow it was heartening to see that the Fates were with IOpera. It is an organisation that deserves to be supported for the consistently high standard of its productions.
Heather Leviston reviewed the performance of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” presented by IOpera at the Lithuanian Club, Melbourne, on December 19, 2021.