George Frideric Handel - Acis and Galatea
Opera Theatre Company, Dublin - 2017
Peter Whelan, Tom Creed, Susanna Fairbairn, Eamonn Mulhall, Edward Grint, Andrew Gavin, Peter O'Reilly, Sinéad O'Kelly, Fearghal Curtis, Cormac Lawlor
Opera Platform - 11 April 2017
It certainly comes as a bit of a surprise and does initially seem a little jarring to find the mythological content of Handel's pastoral opera Acis and Galatea located in a little provincial Irish pub. In the Opera Theatre Company's 2017 production, Handel's fable opens with the nymphs and shepherds coming in from the fields for a quick half and then changing out of their work clothes to take part in a line-dance hoedown.
It's certainly not the first image that comes to mind when you think of nymphs and shepherds in the bucolic setting of a pastoral opera, but there's ample justification for it. Checking the definition on Google, it says that a pastoral is a work that portrays an idealised version of country life, and when you put it like that and apply it to an Irish setting, the connection not only seems obvious in an equivalent modern context, but the way that the tale plays out in this setting also serves to touch on the true spirit of the piece.
This is always a key point when it comes to bringing Handel to the modern opera stage, particularly in those pieces that are more choral or oratorio in format like Acis and Galatea. It's essential not to ironically poke fun at the easy target of its idealised sentiments, but it doesn't serve the works particularly well either to play them in some kind of kitsch notion of traditional period that a modern audience will find impossible to respond to in the way that they might have 300 years ago.
On the other hand, the idea of idealisation is at the heart of Acis and Galatea, but to make it meaningful, there has to be some basis for it in reality. Tom Creed's Irish setting isn't just modernisation for the sake of being clever, it finds a way to touch more deeply on the sentiments at the heart of the work and bring that across to the audiences on the Opera Theatre Company's Irish tour. It does it so well that there's every reason to believe that it can communicate that to a wider audience in its streamed broadcast on the Opera Platform.
Adjusting expectations, bringing a clear head to lofty ideals and rushes of emotions is very much what Acis and Galatea is about, but it's also about transforming reality or creating something greater out of it. For the nymphs and shepherds, it's about celebrating the end of the day in a song and a dance (and maybe a drink or two). The semi-divine nymph Galatea (here a barmaid, much the same thing after that transformative drink or two) is troubled by the far too lofty ideals she holds in her love for the shepherd Acis, and it needs some helpful intervention from Damon to caution both of them to have a little more restraint.
The same goes for the monstrous ogre Polyphemus (here a belligerent drunk), who thinks he can gain the love of Galatea by force. Again, Damon suggests that a more gentle approach might win a fair maid ("Would you gain the tender creature"). The reaction of Acis is perhaps over-solicitous ("Love sounds th' alarm") and again he is cautioned to be more moderate in his behaviour ("Consider, fond shepherd, how fleeting's the pleasure that flatters our hopes in pursuit of the fair"). It's to no avail, as an inebriated Polyphemus staggers in and clobbers him with a brick to the head ("crushed beneath a stone") in a barroom brawl.
Acis and Galatea is not just a morality tale that warns of giving excessive licence to the sentiments, it's more about recognising them - good and bad - and being able to transform them into something more noble. In this way, humans can aspire towards the divine, and even in death Acis is transformed into a fountain. Tom Creed's handling of this vital scene is critical to the success of the production and its overall message. The flashing lights of the emergency services outside the bar, the ambulance men working on the fatally injured man in the foreground all hit home the reality of the death of Acis, while the 'fountain' supplies his friends with a drink to his memory, the commemoration of which will hopefully serve to transform the lives of others.
Music and opera is also an essential element of the transformative experience, turning stories of love and tragedy into something instructive and ennobling, and that's where Handel comes in. Musically, Acis and Galatea is one of the composer's most beautiful works, all its richness compressed into a short work that if filled with memorable melodies and songs. In the context of the performance by the Irish Baroque Orchestra conducted by Peter Whelan, some of the flute playing even delightfully evokes a sense of traditional folk music, cementing the connection between the mythology and its relocation perfectly.
Paul O'Mahony's revolving set provides a lovingly detailed Irish pub interior, exterior and backroom for the cast to move about and give far more expression than you might expect from a work with little dramatic playing. The cast all take their roles well, with a soft gentleness of expression that is perfect for the overall sentiments of the work and its more down-to-earth reduction of the choral parts. Andrew Gavin's Damon is the gentle spirit of temperance that tries to moderate Edward Grint's Polyphemus - played perfectly as more of an awkward drunken fool than an evil monster. Susanna Fairbairn's Galatea and Eamonn Mulhall's Acis bring the same kind of measured dynamic to those roles, keeping them grounded in the realism that the production strives to achieve, while still matching the opera's aspirations to create something greater.