Ilford Manor, Wiltshire

Classical review: Acis and Galatea - Handel among the hollyhocks – one of the pleasures of reaching a certain age



There comes a time in one's life when instead of switching channels when Gardeners' Question Time starts on BBC Radio 4, you find yourself soothed by discussions of wintersweet, sawfly and lousewort. Devotees of the programme will know of Iford Manor because of its garden, designed by Harold Peto to the Italian model, its terraces heavy with wisteria, its cloisters peppered with statuary from long abandoned churches. For those of us who can kill a pot of basil with a single glance, it hosts the most enchanting of the summer festivals, Iford Arts.

Handel's 1718 serenata Acis and Galatea was written for performance in a garden, on the terrace overlooking the fountains designed by the Huguenot philosopher, priest and hydraulic engineer John Theophilus Desaguliers for Cannons, the Stanmore estate of James Brydges, Duke of Chandos.

In Pia Furtado's Iford Manor production with Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company, we move to the Pleasure Gardens of Vauxhall (designs by Georgia Lowe). Ovid's arcadia has become a bosky brothel, with the water-nymph Galatea (Mary Bevan) an erotic dancer in a gilded cage, owned by Polyphemus (Lukas Jacobski) and mad with love for the shepherd Acis (Benjamin Hulett).

Furtado's concept imposes an ironic, bitter cast on John Gay's lyrics and the artless beauty of Handel's pastoral. But from the powdered jades, mollies and fops who flutter around the brothel, to the moral vacillations of Polyphemus's glitter-masked henchman, Damon (Christopher Turner), the characterisation is clear and thorough. As ever in Curnyn's work, there's a strong heartbeat underpinning Handel's quicksilver instrumentation, the pithy sopranino recorders and their tender treble alter-egos, the musky violin and sweet oboe.

Jacobski's biting bass, Bevan's dark, supple soprano and Hulett's clean, lyrical tenor are brilliantly contrasted in the Italianate trio "The flocks shall leave the mountains", Turner's elegance underlined in "Would you gain the tender creature", the consort uninhibited and expressive in "Wretched lovers!".

As with her Iford production of Handel's Susanna, Furtado has created a sort of ballet from sexual bliss and sexual assault, bodies held taut in beguilement and repulsion, the stillness dynamic. It is arresting to hear such delicate music against such muscular imagery, and disturbing to see a bereft Galatea dressed again at the close in the pearl-trimmed corset and glitter-dusted gloves of a dancer, having metamorphosed her murdered Acis into a brook with "Heart, thou seat of soft delight".

Artistic Director Tom Morris warned us that things might go wrong on the first night of the Bristol Proms. These were baby steps for the Bristol Old Vic's revival of a once-thriving 18th-century concert series, overseen by two formidable nannies, Universal and Classic fm. The bottom line was "informality", for which read, "take your drinks in, clap when you like".

I didn't feel much like clapping during the Fitzhardinge Consort's Singing in the Dark, a recital of choral favourites from Tallis to Whitacre, mostly sung in the light. The main event was, in any case, the pianist Jan Lisiecki (Old Vic, Bristol ****), pristine in his pedal-work, unflappable in the frenzied bravura of Chopin's Opus 10 and 25 Etudes, and apparently tickled pink by the applause. Multiple camera shots of his hands, face, and the hammers of a tired and emotional seen-it-all Steinway were mixed, live, on video, sometimes accompanied by lasers, sometimes by digital flora.

Young pianists have to do demanding repertoire to get noticed but Lisiecki's musical personality was most alluring in the long, poised melody of the Sarabande from Bach's Partita in B flat and especially in the shimmering deflections of Messaien's early prelude La colombe. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the whoops and cheers were for his playing, not the lasers.

Critic's Choice

Christianne Stotijn and Imogen Cooper perform songs by Schubert, Britten and Mussorgsky at The Maltings, Snape, (Weds). At the Proms, Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra perform Beethoven's Piano Concerto No 4 with Mitusko Uchida and Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique (Royal Albert Hall, Thurs).


Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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