Handel's first musical treatment of the tale of Acis and Galatea, based on Ovid, was a 'serenata' composed for a wedding in Naples in 1708. Serenatas were usually performed at night, outdoors, with the most skilled singers available reading their music from partbooks but standing amid decorated sets. That composition, in Italian and in Handel's most flamboyantly Italian style, only faintly resembles Handel's English "Acis and Galatea", commissioned in 1717 by the Duke of Chandos for performance at his mansion, Cannons. Most of the evidence suggests that the second piece was intended as a "masque" in the distinctively English tradition of Purcell and other 17th C cavalier composers. It might have involved gorgeous costumes, sets, and dancers, but it's not at all likely that the singers performed dramatically, as actors. Thus, "Acis and Galatea" is neither a small opera nor a ballet, in any later sense. That doesn't warrant any objection, to my mind, to staging it as such. Adding the "trope" of an artful ballet to the cantata-like music doesn't offend MY purism; if it offends yours, don't watch it!
Honestly, the dancing is the most delicious part of this staging. I'm not a fervent dance fan; it's hard to watch dancers from the orchestra pit, with your face to the conductor and your back to the stage. So I watched these dancers as if they were athletes -- acrobats -- and i took great pleasure in their supple, expressive movements, particularly the duets of Lauen Cuthbertson as Galatea and Edward Watson as Acis.
But I was not so thoroughly thrilled by the musical performance. I hate to say it, but I'd rather just watch the dancers and listen to one of the two excellent CDs of this music, one by Les Arts Florissants and the other by The Dunedin Consort. Frankly the acting performances of the singers on this DVD were upstaged completely by the dancing, and I was annoyed when the camera close-upped a singer's postures and lost sight of the dancers. I've defended the vocal artistry of Danielle de Niese several times in other reviews, so I also hate to say that I wasn't much pleased by her performance here. Her technique seems coarse -- not really bad, mind you, just not quite polished enough for Arcadia. Her physical presence, the glamour that made her a sensation as Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare, doesn't compel much attention here. Her costume is scruffy. Her movements lack the energy I expected from her. Her whole physical presence seems heavy rather than sprightly. I hope I'm mistaken, but she looks heavier in this role, in both senses, than she was in earlier roles.
Basso Matthew Rose sings the role of the lumbering, raging giant Polyphemus adequately - not outstandingly - but the production calls upon him to sing bare-chested, with his flabby belly exposed thoughout. Okay, I get the 'dramatic' point, but this is ineluctably a musical spectacle intended as aristocratic Beauty, not as sweaty verismo. My guess is that poor Matthew would have preferred a lion-skin robe or a green Shrek costume.
Charles Workman is somewhat better as an actor but not overly awesome in singing the role of Acis. His buddy Damon, sung by Paul Agnew, seems out-of-context as a slouchy, scruffy comic relief figure in pastoral paradise. Agnew's musicianship is intact, but his voice is plainly fading. Finally, there's the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, playing proficiently, conducted too cautiously by Christopher Hogwood, sounding solid but dull.
Handel's early Italian serenata, "Aci, Galatea e Polifemo", has also been released on a DVD as a semi-operatic stage piece. I haven't had a chance to see it yet. Frankly, I enjoy the earlier work, purely on musical terms, more than the later. There's an excellent CD of it -- a Brilliant Classics bargain -- sung by Stefanie True, Luciana Mancini, and Mitchell Sandler, with Contrasto Armonico conducted by Marco Vitale. If you want my advice, that CD is where you should start to appreciate Handel's musical craft.
But then, this DVD does have its moments of visual loveliness ...