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Acis and Galatea review at Lilian Baylis House – ‘Handel enters the social media age’

Lucy Hall and Anthony Sprague in Acis and Galatea. Photo: Dani Harvey
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Acis has one of the less glamorous transformations in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Other characters become birds or lions, but he is squashed by a rock and turned into a fountain.

With help from John Gay, Handel turned the story into his first secular English drama, a pastoral opera with some great arias and a sad, tender finale.

As part of English National Opera’s Studio Live season, which takes the might of the ENO into smaller spaces, its rehearsal studio has been kitted out with lurid fake grass and bright balloons, Justin Nardella’s design erasing the bucolic setting and instead creating the midsummer party of a trendy social media company.

Director Sarah Tipple turns the opera on its head, making Acis and Galatea an image-obsessed couple constantly on their phones and Polyphemus a put-upon colleague who, humiliated online by Acis, kills him in a fit of rage.

Alexander Sprague’s preening Acis is a great contrast to Matthew Durkan’s pitiable, lumbering Polyphemus, his mournful baritone a highlight of the show.

Tipple has the cast constantly in action – hugging, bundling, playing penalty shootouts – which sometimes gets the better of the finer vocal detail, but reaches a high point when the ensemble does a conga line to the upbeat Happy We.

The traverse staging and constant motion create a wonderful effect where some choral lines are pronounced depending on where each member of the ENO Chorus is on the stage. It creates a kind of surround sound, a mosaic of music that builds piecemeal in the head. It’s an effect that couldn’t possibly be recreated in traditional, huge end-on spaces.

The update is a little laboured, but mostly it works well, erring on the side of silliness and putting Ovid’s story into a new context. The real treat, however, is experiencing the ENO chorus and a fine cast sing so brilliantly and so closely.


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Handel enters the social media age in this fun, close-up production by Sarah Tipple