My title today comes from a 16th-century ditty by Hubert Wælrant, which used to give us hysterics when I was in high school. Perhaps we sight-read it once, or maybe it was just in an anthology that we used in choir. Anyhow, it was simply too much for our collective immaturity and cleverness. [The typesetter in my linked pdf seems to have taken the joke a step further with an unconventional spelling of shepherd.]
Opera Australia reminded me of it on Wednesday by presenting two operas, both of which feature fountains and neither of which actually shows one. That would be “Hard [to come] by a fountain”, I guess.
So the show was a double bill, Handel’s Acis and Galatea followed by Purcell’s Dido and Æneas or, as originally publicised, and already discussed, the other way ’round. I’d agree that the final order was the stronger one, and would have been even without the Big Star in Dido.
And there’s really one reason why I say that: this production of Acis and Galatea leaves me cold in a way that Dido and Æneas couldn’t and doesn’t.
A small part of it is Handel’s fault. One of Roger Covell’s two essays in the program book hints at the reason for this, by pointing to Handel’s earlier serenata, which sets the same story with an Italian libretto, Aci, Galathea e Polifemo (1708). Covell points to the stronger dramatic qualities of the serenata: it introduces “the threat of Polifemo into the opening duet”, allows “Aci to make enough undaunted response to Polifemo to gain some credibility as a hero” and gives Polifemo a chance to savour his revenge while regretting “that his tender feelings for Galathea have been turned into unforgiving anger”.
On the other hand, Acis and Galatea, despite Handel’s glorious and magnificent music, seems dramatically superficial. Perhaps this is as good a reason as any to give it a production populated with “beautiful people” for whom life is one long party, or perhaps one long catwalk. Modern narcissism and modern scrutiny gets a look-in as the chorus of nymphs and shepherds photograph and film each other, projecting the results in real time on a scrim. [It was actually lovely to see those close ups and behind-the-front-line details projected in this way, but it does send a certain message when the camera operator is herself wearing the obligatory white frock.]
Peter McCallum’s review made a point about the challenge of presenting the pastoral/serenata genre, with its idealised rural and mythological themes. We might still have a taste for myth, but the idea of playing shepherds and shepherdesses in a world where no one ever throws a sheep, or drenches it, or shears it, or sends it to market is just too naive. (In much the same way, going out into the gardens of Versailles in a simple muslin frock and pouring one’s own tea no longer convinces as an evocation of the joys of peasant life.)
The trick then, is to find a plausible modern equivalent for an idyllic world in which, according to its rules, no one is ever hurt. Director Patrick Nolan offers one solution by turning the serenata back on its own performance context: ephemeral and private entertainments, staged by the privileged for their own delectation. This, then, becomes the scene for Acis and Galatea. As Nolan puts it: “a world of celebrity where people party hard and everyone wants a piece of the star. The surface is all.”
It’s very glamorously done, but it is hardly an idyllic world (only the table dancer with his iPod seems to have found that and, for all we know, he isn’t even listening to Handel). And from the opening moments of the overture this scene tells you that, for sure, someone will be hurt.
The concept also allows Nolan to give his characters some very modern affectations not actually to be found in the words they sing, or even in their music. Boredom and ennui, for example.
Nolan again: “When we [the audience] meet Galatea, she is bored by it all. The sheen of constant sex and drugs and rock’n’roll has begun to tarnish. In Acis (Henry Choo) she finds someone who is also looking for more.”
Or you know, maybe she’s so wildly in love with the young and beautiful Acis that everything else in her quite lovely and innocent world has simply paled into insignificance as a result. Just a thought.
But what would a contemporary opera production be without a little onstage fellatio and cocaine snorting? [I’m sure it wasn’t snuff, that’s so 18th-century, and in any case you don’t inhale snuff in neat lines from a page of your Moleskine reporter.] Damon does (or receives) the honours. I confess it left me unmoved. And apart from the gentleman who called out “Rubbish!”, I suspect it left most of the audience unmoved. More important, it left Henry Choo’s Acis distinctly unimpressed as well. If these are the joys and pleasures that are meant to stop Acis running after his beloved Galatea, Damon will need to try a lot harder.
And that’s the thing. For all its fantasy and artifice, baroque music sought above all to move the passions of its listeners. To present Acis and Galatea as something coolly superficial and heartless does it an injustice.
Dido and Æneas is anything but heartless, which is why it was right to make it the second half.
Purcell’s work is dramatically more satisfying, and this production makes many appealing and convincing gestures. As a friend observed, it also exploits the one asset of the Opera Theatre stage – its remarkable depth – by setting up a forced perspective with a tiny Æneas standing at the far rear all through the opening numbers before he makes his entrance. Dramatically, Dido and Æneas maintains a fine balance between tender, noble feeling, sinister machinations, and raucous humour, and the production delivers all three.
If I have a complaint, it’s the puzzling matter as to why Opera Australia would go to the trouble of assembling period instruments but then not cast with an equally stylistic ear for vocal sound. Although, perhaps it’s not so puzzling a matter. “And ever and anon, she sadly sighed.”