Acis and Galatea, last produced by Opera Theatre Company as recently as 2009, is a curious piece of music theatre. The first of Handel’s works presented in full for Dublin audiences (in 1734, nearly a decade before Messiah), it’s easy on the ear and not a hard story to follow. The mutual love of the title characters is established in part one, and in part two destroyed by the jealous rage of the powerful Polyphemus—and that’s it. As such, it’s more a serenata or masque than an opera, a poem rather than a story.
Director Tom Creed updates the setting to a rural Irish pub, no doubt an idyllic location for some, creating naturalistic theatre from the most unlikely material. The energy and engagement is palpable, with each of the chorus singers—three men and one woman—a specific character. They enter in work overalls but, after changing clothes in the opening ensemble, spend the rest of the opera dressed cowboy-style, suggesting the chorus-line to Oklahoma! or, perhaps, keen Garth Brooks fans. The revolving set, letting the scene switch from interior to exterior and back, aids fluidity but also suggests that other window into rural life, the TV studio… is this, deep down, a homage to Glenroe?
Within this setting, bartender Galatea (the wonderfully feisty Susanna Fairbairn) presides. Her richly expressive voice finds an excellent foil in the polished tone of tenor Eamonn Mulhall (Acis), especially when they finally sing together in the exultant duet ‘Happy we’ that closes the first part. The violence of Polyphemus’ arrival is strongly evoked both vocally and physically by bass Edward Grint, the contrast in status between him and Acis simply effected through costume. It is in their conflict that Creed’s concept is most telling, as Grint’s bullying boss/landlord out-drinks and out-smokes his feckless opponent, allowing the tragic violence to come naturally through the story. The attention to detail in Polyphemus’ recitative (‘I rage—I melt—I burn…’), for example, is both superb and disturbing to witness.
All this specific theatrical imagery is thrown into stark relief by the vividly idiomatic style of the Irish Baroque Orchestra, performing on period instruments. The presence of this ensemble in a theatrical context is a first, and a very welcome development, as is the appearance of its one-time bassoonist Peter Whelan as an opera conductor. Directing from the harpsichord, Whelan leads the ensemble at slick tempi and with real grit and character in the playing. This includes some lovely individual performances from the ensemble, with Oonagh Lee’s sopranino recorder-playing a moment of virtuoso brilliance.
As is now common in stagings of baroque opera, the contrast between period pit and contemporary stage creates a fascinatingly post-modern effect, a strange confrontation that can be deeply irritating, and yet manages to be more than the sum of its parts here. This is theatre that is unlikely, and oddly artificial, yet deeply humane to its core, and brings some in the audience to their feet. On nationwide tour until 13 April.