[Full Disclosure: Naxos has provided me with a promotional copy of this DVD]
Since Opera Atelier will be producing Acis and Galatea this fall (see some rehearsal footage here), and since I’ve only listened to the music a few times without becoming familiar with it as a stage work, I was quite excited to see this performance on DVD. I’m happy to report that it’s enchanting, and has contributed greatly to my understanding of the opera.
Acis and Galatea is full of achingly beautiful music, but even the most cursory investigation into its history reveals that it presents a number of genre and performance problems. It exists in multiple versions, spanning multiple musico-theatrical (is that a word?) genres. It was originally written as a not-quite-opera – a masque or serenata, where a series of arias are linked by a narrative thread but missing any stage direction or recitative. In a serenata, the songs are sung in sequence but not acted out on stage. Later the work was adapted as a longer, more fully-staged opera.
The result is that, when presented as an opera as in this performance, it’s difficult to overcome its static nature. Arias are abundant but scenes with plot development are sparse, so it takes a long time for things to happen and the narrative arc is weak.
This production from the Royal Opera House attempts to overcome this lack of dramatic action by adding it back in the form of dance. The vast majority of arias are accompanied by dancing, which creates visual interest while the singers are mostly stationary. The dancing is really one of the highlights of the DVD – it’s in a style that, to my untrained eye, incorporates elements of classical ballet and modern dance. Arabesques mingle with hip-swinging and shoulder-rolling, the ballet dancers are clad in bodysuits matching the color of their skin, and their movements are always fluid, undulating, and sensual. I found the choreography hypnotic and always beautiful to look at.
The sets are sparse, presumably to make room for the dancing, and the costumes of the singers are interestingly modern. Acis dresses just like my high school crush and has pretty much the same haircut; the chorus reminds me of my coworkers; and Polyphemus, with his beard, belt, and belly, would look right at home playing guitar in a Brooklyn indie-rock band. I found this rather charming.
Danielle de Niese is an excellent Galatea, vocally assured and a charismatic stage presence. At one point in the opera she even performs an extended ballet sequence – and, though clearly not a ballerina, is graceful and convincing. Charles Workman as Acis is physically stuffer but vocally robust and agile. And the performance really springs to life with the entrance of Matthew Rose as Polyphemus, who dominates the stage – allowing for the fact that he has more dramatic possibilities to exploit, as the only character in the opera who actually does anything. That said, I would have liked better articulation of the passagework from all three principals, who sometimes handled the runs with breathiness.
Included with the DVD is a booklet explaining the performance history of Acis and Galatea, which helps explain the genre weirdness. Sound and picture quality is excellent (puzzlingly to this non-audiophile, there is a surround-sound option), and the subtitles are carefully placed so as to be unobtrusive. It’s available for purchase on Amazon.