Handel – in Dublin at least – is practically synonymous with Messiah, probably also because this is the place where the oratorio was first performed. So you’d be forgiven for not associating immediately his name with opera. No bigger mistake. Not only Handel was mainly an opera composer, but Acis and Galatea is considered by many the highest form of pastoral opera. Opera Theatre Company's production of the 1718 work was outstanding. The endless joys of Handel’s sublime music were matched by stunning performances both by the Irish Baroque Orchestra conducted by Peter Whelan and by the singers, leaving behind a lasting trail of emotion.

Susanna Fairbairn © Ros Kavanagh
Susanna Fairbairn
© Ros Kavanagh

Ovid’s Metamorphosis (on which the episode of Acis and Galatea is based) set in an Irish pub? Cowboys in place of shepherds and a bartender instead of a nymph? A drunkard for the cyclops Polyphemus. The productions images on social media would have made you cringe and bewail a forced attempt at modernising a venerable 300 year old work. But, as always in opera, music is king and the daring new experiment by Opera Theatre Company under the direction of Tom Creed does nothing but confirming the universality of great art. Apart from this, the transposition worked surprisingly well, constituting a sort of dramatic pun: the word “country” - as the modern equivalent of “pastoral” – was exploited in all its potentially applicable translations: that of a country Irish pub, with country workers wearing country cowboy clothes, where the geographical inconsistency only adds to the playfulness of the production. The final irresolvable narrative impasse presented by the original episode of the dying Acis transmuting into a river for intercession of the nymph is underlined smartly and ironically by a very prosaic scene of ambulance staff arriving to succour Acis and then removing his body.

Where to start with the singers? This production concocted a very unusual concentration of talent all in one place, so much so that, after each piece brilliantly performed, you were expecting the next one to disappoint, the standard to drop, as too much grace was conceded already. But the magic held until the very end; a feast of aesthetic pleasure.

<i>Acis and Galatea</i> © Ros Kavanagh
Acis and Galatea
© Ros Kavanagh

Tenor Eamonn Mulhall dazzled in the role of Acis, both for his distinctively warm tone and for the psychological depth of his flawless interpretation. Bass-baritone Edward Grint packed a deadly punch as Polyphemus, performing a wonderful “O ruddier than the cherry” and very convincing as the jealous drunkard; his voice had that satisfying round, deep quality that you want to hear in a bass. Susanna Fairbairn also had a very good voice, although she could possibly have dived into the role of Galatea more dramatically. Among the younger performers, Andrew Gavin, in the role of Damon, displayed a very interesting and promising voice with an endearing character, perfectly showcased by the part of the ‘mediator’. His very few uncertainties with the coloratura were negligible in what was an overall standout performance. Sinead O'Kelly, although never singing as a soloist but always within the ensemble/chorus, made herself noticed and I’d be quite curious to hear her in bigger roles. Finally the chorus, although limited in size, was at any given point powerful and punchy.

The show had a really electric feeling about it, and left me wanting to see it again. This one should not be missed and is testament to the creativity and vitality of Fergus Sheil’s Opera Theatre Company. Ad maiora!