Opera Lyrica is a new addition to the thriving small opera company scene in the UK. Founded in 2012 by artistic director Paola Cuffolo and producer Nick Simpson, its objectives are twofold: to give aspiring professional singers and musicians (as well as directors, designers and technicians) the opportunity to gain experience in opera productions, and also to increase the number of operagorers in UK by touring and through outreach in communities. This autumn sees their third production, a semi-staged production of Handel’s pastoral Acis and Galatea, which they are performing in various venues in London and the South East. I caught the production mid-tour in the intimate atmosphere of St Wilfrid’s Hall at the Brompton Oratory in London.

Acis and Galatea was first performed at Cannons, the residence of the Duke of Chandos, as a pastoral entertainment by a small group of singers and musicians. It is a compact but musically rich two-act work about the shepherd Acis and the nymph Galatea whose love is cruelly destroyed by the lustful monster Polyphemus. As far as we know it was not staged at Cannons, so the director’s decision to perform this work semi-staged made sense, especially in the elegant drawing-room atmosphere of the venue. There were no sets or props, and singers were in formal dress and sang off score with some action and gestures. The ensemble (six players including harpsichord) was positioned in the corner. In the director’s notes, Cuffolo asserts that “we felt that having the singers act could only add to the intensity of the drama within a concert-like setting”. Personally I was rather sceptical about this, but more about this later.

Musically, this was a terrific evening. All six singers sang Handel’s inspired score with style and passion as well as technical finesse. In particular, soprano Annabel Mountford’s Galatea stood out with her beauty of tone and fine coloratura, singing her popular arias “Hush, ye warbling choir!” and “As when the dove” with charm and ease. Acis was sung by tenor Alessandro Fisher whose voice is probably still in an early stage of development. His aria “Love sounds th’alarm!” was nobly sung and his duets with Galatea were sensitively performed. As the brutal Polyphemus, Victor Sgarbi displayed a strong presence and his aria “O ruddier than the cherry” was deliciously executed. The role of Damon (a shepherd friend of Acis) is usually sung by a tenor, although there are historical precedents of it being sung by a treble in Handel’s time. In this production the treble version was sung by soprano Rosanne Havel, probably because then she could double as the chorus. Her voice is light and clear and her arias were infused with genuine sympathy. She also played a strong role in the choruses, in which she was joined by countertenor Oliver El-Holiby, tenor William Heliwell and bass Victor Sgarbi (doubling as chorus). Their ensemble singing in the choruses were especially fine, probably as a result of singing together in many tour performances, and in particular they brought textural clarity in the moving chorus “Mourn, all ye muses”.

The six-piece instrumental ensemble on period instruments also played with spirit and untiring energy, and there were excellent solo contributions from the violin, oboe and recorder. The conductor William Cole kept a tight rein, and although his tempo was a bit ambitious in places, overall he had good grasp of the dramatic tension.

So back to the issue of the semi-staged production. Personally, I am not sure if my enjoyment of this musical drama was particularly “intensified” because of some nominal acting (hugging, caressing, etc.) and gestures by the singers. But this may be because I am familiar with this work and Handel’s style in general, and perhaps for first-time operagoers or people who are less familiar with Handel’s operatic oeuvre it is helpful and enhancing. What is certain is that all the singers sang with total conviction and brought out the various emotions in Handel’s music. In any case, I understand this is not a typical production by Opera Lyrica and they are planning more large-scale productions in the future. If their productions are always musically as high quality as this, they are a company to watch out for.