Gay and Handel
Buxton International Festival
Buxton Opera House
July 12-20 2021, 1hr 40min
Handel’s “serenata” for five singers and small orchestra is a lovely piece of concisely-varied musical invention, the product of the necessities of a particular time and place but richly crafted and beautiful to listen to.
It can be done with very few production resources beyond imaginative vocalists. A great little version from the St Asaph Festival years ago featured live doves for the “pretty warbling choir” and a bovver-booted Christopher Purves as Polyphemus in one of his first professional roles post-Harvey and the Wallbangers.
It's based on a snippet of Ovid, versified by John Gay of Beggars’ Opera fame (and probably other authors). The pastoral myth is about a nymph (Galatea) and a shepherd (Acis) whose amours are disturbed by the cyclops Polyphemus, resulting in the death of Acis and comforting of Galatea in the thought that his spirit lives on in a bubbling stream.
That’s it, really. So how do you turn it into an opera fit for a festival such as Buxton’s? The Early Opera Company’s production, directed by Martin Constantine, goes for the sensual delights of a “Human Sciences International Symposium 1962” as the reconceived setting. Academic gatherings can have their romantic side – Open University residential weekends used to be known for it, I’m told – but the concept does seem to stretch the original material a bit.
Acis, Galatea, Polyphemus and the two friends who offer them advice (the five combine for choral numbers) are represented by the convenor and contributors of the symposium, and their investigation of the “worldly and unworldly love” of Handel’s piece develops into fiercely competitive lustfulness on the part of the Polyphemus character, and of course a physical attack on “Acis”, whom “Galatea” really fancies much more.
It all starts calmly enough, as these things do, but by the time the two innocents are singing Happy, happy we they’re getting quite frisky, and their nemesis makes his first move by squelching Galatea’s pet caged songbird. The monster's “trusty pine” (club) is his brolly here, but he finds a real rock to hit his rival with, as in the original scenario.
There are some nice touches, such as the way “Polyphemus” tries a spot of meditation as a way of dealing with his anger (unsuccessfully), but I didn’t get why the built environment gave way to a surprise field of corn for the consolatory ending.
Musically, though, the performance, under conductor Christian Curnyn, was practically perfect in every way, and Anna Dennis, Samuel Boden, Jorge Navarro Colorado, Edward Grint and David de Winter all sang with great distinction.
Further performances are on 18 and 20 July.
Tickets and info here