New Inn Hall St Oxford OX1 2DL
In the ornate chapel at St. Peter's College, Opera Lyrica gathered six singers and a small group of chamber musicians to perform Handel's Acis and Galatea; commonly thought of as an opera, but perhaps more accurately a masque or serenade. Handel included no stage directions, and the action of the plot would have been impossible to stage in his time, so it seems this work would have been performed as a concert.
Opera Lyrica's approach is for it to be semi-staged. The vocalists pace, interact, emote and act. Nearly all of the Baroque numbers in this work take the da capo form; arias which open with long first sections, and then repeat them after a short contrast, perhaps with some extra variation from the singer.
The story is little more than bare bones. Most words from the short libretto are sang multiple times. The first of the two acts concentrates on the love between goddess Galatea and mortal Acis. They ineffectively mill about trying to find where each other are (the ancient Greek setting precluding mobile phones), all the while singing of their love, until they meet and coo, pant and woo at each other, and we break for an interval. In terms of dramatic conflict and narrative pace, this is unlikely to be confused with an episode of 24.
The effect of all this is rather meditative and languorous. Everything has space. The simple libretto gives the music time to carry the audience with flowing tides of melody, and the repetition lets the meaning of each line bed in. It also gives time for the cast to act or do nothing, and they strike the right balance between inertia and fuss. They add weight to their relationships by interacting effectively with each other; flirting, teasing, scolding and in a surprisingly uncomfortable scene, sexually harassing.
Alessandro Fisher as Acis stood out for me in the first act. He was the first singer that really engaged, stepping farther out into the audience than anyone yet had, with wide eyes, expressions drawn large, and stage presence. He sang remarkably, with a pleasing tone and tight control of pitch and vibrato.
In the second act, the romance went a bit pear-shaped, as oft happens in operas. This gave rise to an increasing intensity in the music, and while the pastoral prettiness of the first act was enjoyable, here the performance grew far more immersive. We heard Victor Sgarbia as resident Cyclops sing a striking bass part, and Roseanne Havel emerged from shepherd to star with a gorgeous soprano performance that bewitched the acoustics of the chapel, in what for me was the musical highlight of the evening (perhaps unfortunately overshadowing Annabel Mountford as Galatea). The Chorus got more opportunity to sing, employing sumptuous harmonies, and the traditional operatic pastime of grieving made the drama emotionally engaging, the choreography of the singers working particularly well as the Chorus lamented behind a bereft Galatea.
Things got better though—-she decided to turn her dead boyfriend into a fountain. With this happy ending, we left an enjoyable evening at the college with our minds at rest.