A shepherd, a jealous giant, a nymph and her lover are the protagonists in Handel’s 18th century miniature opera, Acis and Galatea, which is based on a pastoral myth. Written for a garden performance in a country mansion, it has advantages over Handel’s other operatic output: it is in English rather than Italian and, at 90 minutes, it is concise.
The Early Opera Company, one of Britain’s leading Baroque ensembles, presented a concert version of the work as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. In the resonant acoustics of St Canice’s Cathedral, the contrasting voices sounded clean and graceful and allowed the poetic libretto to gleam.
Christian Curnyn, directing from the harpsichord, launched the sinfonia at a brisk and energetic pace. The opening chorus set the Act 1 tone of pastoral bliss and swooning joy in ‘Oh the pleasure of the plains, Happy nymphs and happy swains’.
The soloists, all hotfoot from premier league engagements, formed a chorus behind the orchestra, moving to the front for the arias. Dressed in a long, white gown and percussive heels, soprano Joélle Harvey as Galatea was a stately sea nymph, with a nimble and lovely voice that made light work of the trills and word-painting effects.
Allan Clayton, as Acis, was a gentle and warm tenor in the amorous Act 1 love songs, going up a gear in the Act 2 aria ‘Love sound th’alarm’, with stirring crescendos, from the quietest pianissimo to full throttle in the space of a long-held note. Samuel Boden, as the pal urging caution, was a lighter, more refined tenor voice.
The mood darkened in Act 2, which opened with the arrival of a ‘raging, melting, burning’ Polyphemus. Bass Andrew Foster-Williams was the least inhibited by the concert format, leaving aside his printed score during his scowling delivery.
The period-instrument orchestra, including a visually striking lute-like theorbo, was a sprightly band. There was terrific playing from Hannah McLaughlin, on oboe and recorder, setting the melancholy mood and vividly evoking pastoral tones. The arrival of President Michael D Higgins and his entourage added an air of genteel gandeur to the occasion in keeping with the spirit of its 18th century origins.