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#156 The English Concert: Aci, Galatea e Polifemo

June 29, 2011

Nicholas Hawksmoor's majestic church looms over Spitalfields in general, and the Ten Bells pub in particular.

Well, lah di dah. One eighteenth-century opera wasn’t enough for us this week – we had to get ourselves down to Christchurch, Spitalfields for a performance of the dramatic cantata Aci, Galatea and Polyphemo by Handel. It was played by The English Concert, who, despite their name, are not a concert. They’re an orchestra who specialise in playing Baroque music with authentic period instruments. They’re very good.

The rarely performed Aci, Galatea and Polyphemo uses the Roman myth of Acis, a regular guy who falls in love with the sea nymph Galatea, and finds himself having to ward off Polyphemus, a cyclops who is hot for her.  Anyway, things don’t end well. The spurned Polyphemus kills Acis with a big rock. In her grief, Galatea turns Acis’s blood into a river. This rarely happens in Hollyoaks.

(Polyphemus is the same cyclops that Ulysses later stabbed in the eye. Some guys just can’t catch a break.)

There's no better way to experience the interior of Christchurch. I mean, you could go to a church service or something, but come on. You and I both know that's not going to happen.

The libretto’s in Italian, and it wasn’t staged, just sung. The music was… you know.. music. With instruments. Oh, okay, in this case even I can tell it was sublime. The church’s stately baroque interior provided an immense and impressive sounding board for the three virtuoso singers, who took on a challenging score (particularly Polyphemo, who had to boom out some amazingly long, low notes.) Props to the guy with what I think was an archlute, as well. This is like a normal lute, but the size of a small car. I’m only slightly exaggerating.

Handel returned to this story later in life, by the way, and wrote the more famous Acis and Galatea, with English lyrics provided by one John Gay. The Beggar’s Opera guy! It’s like an 18th-Century Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon round here.

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