The role of the raging cyclops Polifemo in Handel’s dramatic cantata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is one of the most challenging in the repertoire. Any bass who tackles it needs to be ready for a headspinning big dipper ride that will send him plunging or soaring two and half octaves in a heartbeat. Trevor Bowes chose a unique way to prepare for this giddying experience when he appeared at Cadogan Hall last night: he made his own costume.

Trevor Bowes
© Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

It was striking to see a figure resembling Darth Vader in Star Wars stride on to the platform alongside his other more conventionally – but stylishly – dressed soloists, soprano Zoë Brookshaw and mezzo-soprano Bethany Horak-Hallett. This concert performance with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, under the spirited direction of harpsichordist Steven Devine, was obviously going to be different.

Clearly, Bowes thought if he were to fully inhabit this role it would help to look like a villain, so he announced on Twitter that he was designing and making an outfit, saying he was more nervous about his sewing than his singing, but later issuing a challenge: “Time to have it out with this virtuosic beast. It’s thrilling, terrifying, gut-wrenching, and I can’t wait!”

It was certainly all those things, though his performance took a while to settle. Handel wrote the role in his impetuous mid-twenties for virtuoso bass Antonio Manna and showed no mercy. Polifemo’s first aria “Sibilar l’angi d’Aletto” – in which he describes his uncontrollable desire for Galatea – is a killer, requiring massive leaps and yards of semiquavers, sung at speed. His top register suffered under these demands, but recovered later, first in a beautiful lament, “Non sempre, no, crudele” and then in the crazily demanding “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori”, where he even added some cranky falsetto before descending to several bottom Ds with ease. This was a triumphant, idiosyncratic, courageous performance of one of the strangest roles in the repertoire – with a costume to match. 

Bethany Horak-Hallett and Zoë Brookshaw
© Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment

But in this drama (not to be confused with his later Acis and Galatea) Handel didn’t limit his demands to Polifemo alone. Both Aci and Galatea have some fearsome, though beautiful, mountains to climb. Brookshaw (Aci) and Horak-Hallett (Galatea) are among the best young singers in Britain today and are both currently OAE Rising Stars of the Enightenment. Horak-Hallett sang with a creamy calm sincerity, even in the most acrobatic passages, possessing a truly impressive, warm-toned lower register. She showed flashing-eyed defiance towards Polifemo in“Benché tuoni e l’etra avvampi” and heart-rending love for Aci in “Se m’ami o caro”, pairing elegant phrasing with rock-solid intonation.

Every time I hear Brookshaw I marvel at the sweet freshness of her voice. There’s an innocent quality to her soprano that is most beguiling, but only possible because she possesses such fine technique and control. As Aci, she had two of the most notable numbers in the piece. In the first, “Qui l’augel da pianta in pianta” she duetted ravishingly with fine solo oboe and violin birdsong, and then broke our hearts in the dying lament “Verso gia l’alma col sangue”. Here the OAE, under Devine’s meticulous direction, set the scene with Handel’s magical devise of dividing pianissimo strings semitone by weeping semitone. For a moment, time stood still.

Devine’s customary zest and attention to detail kept the drama flowing while giving space for the singers to excel, and yet disappointingly the trademark zing of the orchestra was somewhat dulled by the venue. This event was to have taken place in the more transparent acoustic of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, but technical problems there meant it had to transfer to Cadogan Hall, with a consequent loss of clarity. Don’t blame the players, blame the plush, upholstered auditorium. There again, it might just have been the yards of satin in Trevor Bowes' costume.