A pleasant evening of music which was good in all the ways which really count.
Disclaimer: The author wishes to convey his apologies to those concerned for the delayed posting of this review.
The University of Southampton Chamber Opera Company’s performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria (RV 589) and Händel’s Acis and Galatea could not easily have taken place in a grander setting than St Michael’s Church in central Southampton, the oldest building still in use in the city—even older than either of the works performed there on February 24th and 25th.
Before the start I endeavoured not to be made too giddy by the ancient and lovely surroundings, so that I could focus on the performances with a clear head. This was no mean feat, to the extent that I was slightly taken aback by the reminder, when the choristers emerged and lined up under the round stone archway and high ceiling, that I was attending an student production. I hastily recalibrated my faculties of judgment to account for this, and leant forwards, intrigued.
Of course, in all amateur productions there is a tension which must be released if the audience is to relax fully, as the question arises in their minds of whether they will actually enjoy what they are seeing or whether it will simply be a student production in the pejorative sense the term has acquired: an earnest dud.
It was therefore a considerable advantage to the performers to begin in such a strong way. Indeed, in what possible way could a performance of Vivaldi’s Gloria in such a setting be otherwise than impressive and moving? If there is such a way, it was not demonstrated that night by the Chamber Opera, whose rendition of the Gloria was surprisingly powerful for a student choir. Each soloist was successively very impressive, and any of the aforementioned tension in the church ebbed away, an effect particularly aided by the conductress, Lucy Grant, whose commanding and dignified presence gave additional reassurance that what we were gathered to witness would be something well worth coming out to see.
Then began the main attraction of the evening: a performance of Händel’s Acis and Galatea, a so-called pastoral opera. Having been impressed and reassured by the strength of the performance of the Gloria, I was quietly hopeful that the opera would be as polished as the Gloria.
Indeed, I was not disappointed—which is not to say that it did not quickly become obvious that we would have more reminders that we were watching an amateur production. The most obvious and amusing of these was when, during Acis’ enjoyably performed opening aria (Love in her eyes sits playing), attention was drawn away from Jamie Milburn by a backstage ensemble member, who craned his neck around a corner in the background, peered at the audience, then disappeared again. Apart from this, the production was a little (but only a little) let down by its costumes and props, which occasionally made it hard to suspend disbelief and enjoy the performances—but of course these things are entirely secondary in importance to the singing and acting, which were uniformly strong.
The stand-out performance of the show was Isabel Tuffin-Donnevert as the unlucky goddess Galatea, whose solid portrayal bound the entire piece together. Jamie Milburn’s Acis was also well acted and performed, although his voice was occasionally drowned out by the orchestra, so that I sometimes had to consult the libretto (usefully printed in the programme) to keep up with the story.
The monstrous Polyphemus, a giant who becomes infatuated with Galatea, was well realised by Elliot Titcombe (interestingly self-described in the programme as a “conscientious” bass-baritone). His impressive entrance, punctuated by rhythmic strikes to the floor with the wooden staff he was carrying (strikes which, when I remembered where we were, made me wince slightly), was a superb scene-setter for the rest of the opera, and his performance throughout effectively animated the grand character of Polyphemus, despite an odd slapstick moment in which he and Galatea have an undignified scuffle with a stool on the steps of St Michael’s pulpit—one need only look at the poster to see how the differing proportions of these characters makes such a physical tussle unlikely.
I particularly enjoyed the numerous small flourishes given by the ensemble cast to their small roles, which complemented the main performances very well and meant that there was rarely a moment on stage when there was not an interesting detail on which to focus. My notes are full of positive references to these ensemble performers, and they deserve very great credit alongside the three main performers.
Overall it was an enjoyable and satisfying evening of music which, although lightly tinged with overtones of high-school theatrics, had more than enough impressive features to satisfy the casual opera-goer (if such an entity exists in this day and age).