Abandon review (Brisbane Powerhouse)

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What can you do with Handel’s enchanting little pastoral opera Acis and Galatea (HWV 49) to experience its full beauty, except to sing it? It’s full of grief and wit, joy and sorrow, a mini-drama about Love, Death and the Whole Damn Thing, and since its birth in 1718 as a one-act masque it has never left the opera repertoire. In 1732 Handel adapted the piece as a three-act serenata for the Italian opera troupe in London, and in 1739 re-arranged it as a two-act pastoral opera, again in English.
In a collaboration for the World Theatre Festival in Brisbane, Opera Queensland’s extraordinary artistic director Lindy Hume has joined Raewyn Hill from Townsville’s esteemed Dancenorth, along with classical accordion virtuoso James Crabb, to present just one piece from this enchanting work, Galatea’s lament for her slain lover Acis. It’s a piece that is more than just dance, more than just opera, and the score is played not by a chamber orchestra, but by a cello and a piano accordion. Yes, that’s what I said, and the audience was astonished too, especially as the musicians formed part of the narrative, moving aggressively among the dancers and singers, forcing them into positions of fear and flight, yet without any falsification of the tone and intent of the original.
The story of Acis and Galatea is one of those little classical fables about doomed nymphs and their swains, of innocent idyllic love ruined by jealous monsters, in this case the giant Polyphemus, whose desire for the nymph Galatea leads him to kill her lover Acis. And that’s it. Yet the score contains some of Handel’s happiest arias, like the chirpily ironic “Ruddier than the cherry”, where Polyphemus sings of his love for Galatea; the love duet “The flocks shall leave the mountains”; and a partly comic furioso recitative “I rage, I melt, I burn”: all songs familiar from the concert and recital stage.
Here, though, the emphasis is only on the last aria, a lament which leads to Galatea’s acceptance of the fate of her lover and his immortalisation. With two sopranos and a male alto from Opera Queensland, and five solo dancers, this one lament takes over 70 minutes to perform in one of the most perfect theatrical meldings imaginable. Against a set made up entirely of large cardboard boxes, the five dancers and three singers form an integrated ensemble, dressed in the same type of costumes, the singers effortlessly becoming part of the dance movement until it’s hard to tell who is whom.
Masque, “little opera”, or serenata, whatever you like to call it, can be very static, but this combination of movement and sound, without detracting in any way from the glory of Handel’s music, makes the piece come more alive, and the addition of the text, in both John Gay’s English version and some of the Italian text used in 1732, projected onto the back wall, adds visual as well as interpretative interest.
This perfectly-performed dance-opera is an example of where traditional classical music can go, being re-interpreted without being destroyed, and if it awakened some of the younger members of the audience to the possibilities of new ways of presentation, then everybody wins, just like Acis himself who, although slaughtered by a giant, becomes an immortally beautiful fountain.
[box]Abandon has now closed in Brisbane[/box]

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