Last Updated on September 16, 2021
Baroque music in the splendid surroundings of The Vache, Chalfont St Giles.
Following last year’s successful debut for the Vache Baroque Festival, a two-day outdoor celebration of the music of Henry Purcell featuring his tragic opera Dido and Æneas, we were delighted to be back at the festival’s charming, outdoor Chalfont St Giles venue for the 2021 season.
Highlights included Bach and Milton: Paradise and Pandemonium, a dramatic reading of extracts from John Milton’s epic poems punctuated with the music of J.S. Bach, and two staged performances of Handel’s popular pastoral opera, Acis & Galatea which we were invited to review.
As with Glyndebourne, you can bring your own picnic but there is also some excellent on-site catering. It was lovely to sit out with a glass of fizz and enjoy the two pop-up performances that preceded the opera. The first set contained songs by Henry Lawes and Henry Purcell and that was followed by the delightful counterpoint of the Prelude and Allemande from Première suite de pièces à deux dessus, Op. 4 by Jacques-Martin Hotteterre (1674 – 1763) faultlessly delivered by 2 recorders (Oonagh Lee & Joel Raymond). This was followed by Handel’s 4 movement Sonata in B-flat major, Op. 2, No. 3, played by the full ensemble using original gut-stringed period instruments including the Theorbo bass lute. The energy of the final allegro sent us off with a spring in our step to find our seats for the opera performance.
Acis & Galatea is a pastoral opera in two acts by George Frideric Handel, his first with an English libretto which was written by playwright John Gay. The story is taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and it was first performed in 1718 at Cannons near Edgware, the stately home of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos, where Handel was employed as the in-house composer.
The setting is Arcadia, a mythical space populated by nymphs and shepherds living out a deliriously bucolic existence. The stage is populated by cut-out winged sheep with the cast decked out in gorgeously extravagant costumes by designer Laura Jane Stanfield
The story centres around the semi-divine Galatea, played as a grumpy emo teenager by Rowan Pierce, who is searching for Acis, her shepherd boyfriend, Her clarity of tone and accuracy comes to the fore in the aria ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling quire’. Meanwhile, Acis is busy rebuffing his friend Damon (Rory Carver_ in a lecherous comic turn, who is trying to convince the lovelorn Acis to party with the other nymphs and shepherds rather than pining. Acis is played by James Way who is the vocal star of the show with his pure, mellifluous, baroque tenor voice and a persona that combines the goofiness of Mr Bean with the nervous courage of Colin Firth.
The two lovers are reunited and the first act ended with the typically Handelian jig ‘Happy We’ which features the 2 lovers cavorting hilariously in a bath full of foam bubbles.
Act II sees the entrance of the giant cyclops Polyphemus, given a suitably menacing air by Tristan Hambleton in ‘I rage – I melt – I burn’. Acis wants to play the hero but is eventually killed by a rock that Polyphemus throws at him. In the end Galatea uses her powers to turn the lifeless Acis into a divine ‘bubbling fountain’ and the opera ends with the stately minuet ‘Galatea dry thy tears’ performed with a plangent sensitivity by the ensemble.
Too often Baroque opera is performed in concert versions, but operas such as Acis & Galatea benefit immeasurably from being fully staged. It helps to mitigate the flimsiness of the plots and the repetition inherent in the da capo aria form. With Music Director Jonathan Darbourne firmly at the helm and slick direction from Sophie Gilpin, this production was funny, accessible and entertaining. The Vache Baroque festival is local, intimate and rather special. I’d love to see them bring their productions to London after the Vache to extend their season maybe at Kenwood or Chiswick House?
For further information please visit the Vache Baroque Festival Website – Under 35 discounted tickets are available across all performances
Chalfont St. Giles,