Acis and Galatea, Ezio (Sadler’s Wells); Euryanthe (Coliseum); Salome (Covent Garden)
New Statesman, Nov. 1977
Any study of operatic form and favourites proves the importance of making a good book. According to my card, Acis won by a head from Salome, with Ezio a surprisingly close third. Euryanthe also ran, but not for long; it was helplessly hamstrung from the start by the bogus Romanticism of Helmina von Chezy, whose so-called plot is more like a conspiracy against the human intellect. Weber's culpable complicity has jeopardised if not forfeited the life of his opera. Translation at least allowed the audience to sympathise with the singers, who confided that they could no longer bear it, no, they could not bear it; a sentiment widely shared. Weber first died in London 150 years ago; it seemed heartless to re-enact that tragedy.
Handel too died in London; so did Italian opera, attacked by patriots and neglected by the public. In Ezio the extinct species is freshly preserved, like a mammoth in Siberia, by the rigorous technique of Metastasio. Every detail of the dramatic structure can be traced, thanks to skilled articulation of words and music. Given deft translation and alert direction, the stock conspiracy-plot remains genuinely intriguing. Costumes and scenery were valid and inventive; among much eloquent performance; Anne Wilkens triumphed in the castrato part of the unconquered hero. In general, however, the succession of da capo arias was like a frieze of marbles, lacking warmth and life. The libretto, though quite gripping, failed to turn Handel on. Yet he was audibly kindled by Acis, as Strauss was by Salome. Moral: to excite an opera-composer, it helps to be Wilde or Gay.
This follows from the nature of the art-form itself. Music sounds immensely significant yet remains unspecific; so its closest verbal counterparts are myth and legend, which already contain the needful resonances and overtones. The aptest style is also quasi-musical, with words and ideas already dancing or singing on the page. The best librettists, therefore, are for example classical scholars, as well as (in Marlowe's words) “wanton poets, pleasant wits, musicians”. Oscar Wilde's play of Salome offers incantatory prose and sensual imagery together with an ensemble of quarrelling Jews and a notorious dance-sequence. This material is readily adaptable as a libretto, and translates well into German. Salome herself slips easily into musical attire, all glittering trills and thudding pulse, jewelled without and lustful within like a gaudy bloodsucking insect.
Other percussive effects included the persistent click and rattle of released opera glasses, for the closer study of Grace Bumbry; justifiably, for she has been the brightest star of the season. Observe her quick glints of comprehension just before she elucidates a riddling speech from the Baptist; her sudden refulgence of diction and demeanour when declaring her illustrious name and rank; her radiant emergence from a cloud of veils; her occultation into pouting petulance when not instantly given her head. She is well supported, especially by Paul Crook as Herod. Josephine Veasey was effective but rather restrained as Herodias, while Norman Bailey's Baptist puzzlingly looked away from Salome all the time. That character is bound to seem lack-lustre if played as a lust-lacker; he is surely intended to confront fleshly temptation head on, while he still has the chance. Even his voice, however, was prematurely cut off, despite its sonority, The conductor, David Atherton, is a dedicated Straussian; and Salome might remain a masterpiece even as a symphonic poem with staged dumb-show. But in so manifestly word-inspired an opera, the inspiration is lost whenever the words are; and that was too often for my liking.
Clarity was easier to attain in the lightly-textured Acis and Galatea. But the chorus of happy shepherds went sadly astray, and so did the comic business of Ian Wallace's Polypheme. A Cyclops with one eye on the audience risks missing the Handelian vision. So did the staging, in my view. Even masques need recognisable features; the required rural prospect is not best represented by a formal garden, nor the slaying of Acis by a suddenly blood-red backcloth. But all the rest was, in Gay's phrase, a soft delight. His text has never had enough acclaim, either in musical or literary history, whether for acclimatising Handel to English words (long before the Congreve, Milton, Dryden, Pope or Biblical settings) or for unsealing such a fount of ebullient operatic melody, without precedent in its day and without rival until Trial by Jury. Anthony Rolfe Janson as Acis did it exemplary justice, especially with his sensitive legato singing above the stave. The star quality of Joy Roberts grows steadily brighter with each appearance. On this showing and that of Ezio the Handel Opera Society deserves every support for the good works it performs.