The 300th anniversary of Handel’s pastoral opera based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphosis means we’re spoiled for it at the moment. It was presented at March’s Handel Festival, will crop up again at the Wigmore Hall later this month, and the Early Opera Company has just released a new recording.

Lucy Hall (Galatea) © Dani Harvey
Lucy Hall (Galatea)
© Dani Harvey

English National Opera is getting in on the action too, in the context of their new ENO Studio Live series, which offers scaled-back, intimate performances in the rehearsal spaces of Lillian Baylis House. One of the overriding pleasures of seeing the ENO Chorus up close like this – and they sang with vivid and irrepressible focus and rich, realistic characterisation – is a musical and dramatic immediacy that is sometimes lost in the cavernous Coliseum.

The story of Acis and Galatea is straightforward enough: the former (a shepherd) loves the latter (a sea-nymph), but so does the giant Polyphemus, who, when spurned by Galatea, murders Acis, who is transfigured into a crystal fountain at the end.

The instrumental forces too are elegantly restrained: pairs of oboes and recorders, two violins, cello, bass and continuo, though even with this limited colour palette Handel’s orchestration summons up an extraordinary variety of mood, drawn out by conductor Nicholas Andsell Evans, assisted by Chris Hopkins at the harpsichord. Special mention should go to Ian Wilson on recorder, who made the dance-like passages take off.

Matthew Durkan (Polyphemus) © Dani Harvey
Matthew Durkan (Polyphemus)
© Dani Harvey

The themes of this production are social exclusion and public cruelty. Director Sarah Tipple swaps rural idyll for the summer party of MountainMedia, the kind of grimly jovial social media enterprise whose Shoreditch offices are full of beanbags and ping-pong tables. In this respect Justin Nardella’s designs (and Sarah Hamza’s costumes) are toe-curlingly evocative of a particular kind of workplace.

Polyphemus (Matthew Durkan) is less mythic monster than socially awkward and romantically inept colleague, cruelly humiliated and ostracised by his co-workers and even the conductor; he makes the cardinal mistake of being the first one to arrive, alone, to the party, fidgeting with his beer accompanied by the nervously hyperactive opening Sinfonia. Durkan’s voice, which channels both vulnerability and fury, was a vehicle for considerable pathos, and his giant on the tragic side of Handel’s tragicomedy.

There are plenty of smart touches: the opening chorus sings of the pleasures of life and being “free and gay”, as they crack open the contents of the complimentary bar, which seems an apt articulation of the kind of gaudy 18th-century decadence and luxury that was the context for Handel’s 1718 aristocratic entertainment. And the Act 2 ‘Wretched lovers’ chorus that follows Acis and Galatea’s betrothal – tweeted for all the world to see on screens framing the stage (#shesaidyes!) – was a wry look at the transience of things online.

Alexander Sprague (Acis) © Dani Harvey
Alexander Sprague (Acis)
© Dani Harvey

In this vision of Acis, Galatea is Employee of the Year, and was sung radiantly and richly by Lucy Hall, making her ENO debut. Her Galatea, though fun and flirtatious, was someone never quite happy in their world. Acis, sung cooly by Alexander Sprague, was a much nastier piece of work, preening and arrogant: he forces Galatea to stay to watch Polyphemus humiliate himself in his appeal to her (“O ruddier than the Cherry”), and then conspires with his friends to grossly doodle on the passed out giant’s face, shaming him with the hashtag #PrettyPoly. Bradley Smith’s Damon, who sang with fulsome melancholy, is the only voice of reason in the opera, horrified at Acis’ treatment of Polyphemus and warning Acis early on, in the aria “Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?”, that the workplace party might not be the best place to engage in affairs of the heart.

What you make of this production will be determined by your view of social media and its place in contemporary culture. The ending of the opera is startlingly ambivalent in this respect: Galatea employs her “divine power” as a social media queen to memorialise Acis online, speaking to the way Twitter provides a forum for mass public performances of grief and mourning. But given that it’s the rather more toxic aspects of social media that help instigate Polyphemus’ murderous workplace meltdown – hand-in-glove with the noxious masculine culture of MountainMedia, where the men down bottles of beer and have a braying kickabout – this production is perhaps a more arch reflection on social media’s role in our shared lives. The final chorus – “Galatea, dry thy tears”, they sing – was strangely moving, accompanied by a slideshow of Acis’ selfies from happier times. But this was surely tempered by the rather ghoulish use of smartphones recording one employee performing CPR on Acis as he died before our eyes. Perhaps Handel’s advice would be to delete your account.  

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