Magazine article The Spectator

Double the Pleasure

Magazine article The Spectator

Double the Pleasure

Article excerpt

Handel

Wigmore Hall

Die tote Stadt

Royal Opera House

The Wigmore Hall last Saturday afternoon and evening was a scene of sheer delight, with Handel's Aci, Galatea e Polifemo being performed before tea, and Acis and Galatea in the evening. It was all masterminded by Paul McCreesh, with his Gabrieli Consort and Players, and a uniformly fine set of soloists, who also constituted the chorus. The Gabrieli Consort, which I unfortunately very rarely have cause to encounter in the pursuit of duty, is a wonderful early-instrument group, characterised by extraordinary sweetness of tone, and by an expressiveness which would be regarded as quaint if it didn't emerge from the right kind of instruments. Even hearing them tune up is a pleasure -- in fact I half-thought they had launched into the Overture to Agrippina, which was used as the opening to the first piece, when they were still awaiting the arrival of the towering McCreesh and the soloists.

Aci, Galatea e Polifemo dates from 1708, when Handel was 23 and living in Naples, and fully absorbing the musical atmosphere there. Anyone in the audience at the Wigmore who was afraid that we were going to hear two not dissimilar variants on a story must have been pleasantly surprised, for this Italian Handel is full of vocal flourishes and hair-raising coloratura, all of it dispatched with the greatest urbanity by the cast, which only numbers three in this version. There are large chunks of recitative, in fact it is a verbose text, where for the only time ever I have felt that Handel had too little plot to cope with, almost none: the shepherd Aci is in love with the nymph Galatea, and their happiness is first threatened and then destroyed by the intrusion of the lustful Polifemo. All is not lost, however; or that's what the characters think, since Aci is turned into a stream in which Galatea can spend eternity bathing. That doesn't seem to me a big advance on Orfeo's becoming a constellation in Monteverdi's first opera, but perhaps I have an inadequate feeling for Nature.

The most imposing feature of Aci is the amount of music given to Polifemo: he does all the things he says he will, both in speech -- bellowing, snarling, roaring -- and in action, and requires the most prodigious vocal range in which to do them.

Fortunately Christopher Purves, never more in his element than when playing sadistic villains, has the technique and the notes, and he was hilarious, frightening and awe-inspiring. The lovers, whose most distinctive vocal feature is that Galatea's tessitura is lower than Aci's, caroled, languished, lamented, affirmed adorably. …

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