The audience arrived to find the stage set for a psychology conference, with chairs and tables ranged on a platform, and a stand and microphone to one side, at the front. The screen at the back told us we were at the 'Human Sciences International Symposium, 1962'. A smartly dressed delegate came on to check everything, and changed the slide, to give the title of the paper he was about to present: 'The games we play. A study of worldly and unworldly love, through Handel's Acis and Galatea'. Clearly, we were there to witness a session of role-play – Buxton Opera House, Buxton, UK, 15 July 2021.
During the overture other delegates arrived. An assistant brought in a life-sized model of a sheep - three of Handel's characters are shepherds - then wheeled in a trolley carrying a birdcage covered in a white cloth. The presenter changed the slides to show scenes of the countryside.
To anyone who can't believe what they are reading, I can only say that Martin Constantine's Buxton Festival/Early Opera Company co-production worked, brilliantly. The delegates on the platform acted out the roles in Handel's pastoral romance. Anna Dennis, a warm-voiced Galatea, seemed to be making notes on the audience's (our) behaviour when she entered. Later she placed a small bird in the cage.
Acis, the fresh, youthful-sounding Sam Boden, came in with a backpack, from which he produced a map during his aria 'Where shall I seek the charming fair?'
Jorge Navarro Colorado captured the presenter's cool objectivity, even as he intervened to offer advice, in the roles of Damon, in Act I, and Coridon, in Act II. The da capo repeat of Damon's 'Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?' was addressed to the audience with the house-lights momentarily up. There was a touching ordinariness to the two lovers. Galatea sat applying mascara as Acis sang 'Love in her eyes sits playing', and poured him a cup of tea during their celebratory duet 'Happy we'.
Edward Grint's character had of course been watching all this, slipping into his role as the giant, Polyphemus, and as the duet ended he vented his jealousy by reaching into the cage and killing the bird, followed by an immediate blackout. When we returned after the interval there was blood on the cover of the birdcage.
The opening chorus of Act II, 'Wretched lovers', brought a distinct chill to the air. Grint played down the usual jollity of Polyphemus' 'O ruddier than the cherry', suggesting the latent violence both vocally and in his dance with Galatea's robe. Even though the presenter-as-Coridon tried to talk Polyphemus round, Acis was alert to the danger. In 'Love sounds the alarm' he psyched himself up, taking a succession of jackets from a clothes rack and putting them on one on top of the other, like armour (I counted six by the end), sounding, but not looking, heroic.
Tension built perceptibly during the trio in which Acis and Galatea's love duet, 'The flocks shall leave the mountains' is continually interrupted by Polyphemus, seething with rage. The moment when he jumped up from his chair, rock in hand, to strike Acis down was genuinely shocking. Even he seemed appalled by his own actions.
In the myth, Acis' blood becomes a river and he is united with Galatea, a sea-nymph. In Martin Constantine's production the rear of the set parted to reveal a cornfield, from which the singers sang the final chorus, shedding some of their outer clothes as they did so. I must admit, the symbolism of this escaped me, unless it was to suggest some sort of release from the enclosed space and increasingly hot-house atmosphere of the conference.
The Early Opera Company's music director Christian Curnyn conducted with an appropriately light touch, matched by buoyant, fresh playing from the company's orchestra. To form the chorus, the soloists were joined by tenor David de Winter, the assistant in charge of the sheep, and other props.
Classical myths still have a lot to say about human psychology and behaviour. The conference setting and role-play was an ingenious answer to the question of how to put this over to a present-day audience, using clinical objectivity as a paradoxical route to emotional involvement, and without undermining the charm of Handel's perennially appealing score.
Copyright © 10 August 2021