Acis and Galatea. Iford Arts, Bradford-on-Avon

IT would be hard to imagine a more perfect setting for baroque opera than the Italianate cloister in the beautiful Harold Peto-designed gardens of Iford Manor near Bradford-on-Avon.

Over the years, the cloister and the gardens were the setting for operas from every period, jazz, folk and world music, picnic proms and more. It was sometimes dubbed a “mini Glyndebourne” but with its support for young singers and education work, and the dazzling quality of the performers, directors, creative teams and productions, it was so much more.

The gardens were home to the Iford arts festival for 27 years, under the imaginative, rigorous and energetic direction of Judy Eglington, and this semi-staged concert performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea was first and foremost a tribute to her vision and her legacy.

The short opera – which is famous for its glorious songs, particularly the monster Polyphemus’ Ruddier Than The Cherry – has been staged by Iford Arts before, and this performance, in the beautiful Holy Trinity Church, was a welcome return for a festival favourite, Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company, with an ensemble of first-class soloists, led by Katherine Crompton as the nymph Galatea and the tenor Nick Pritchard as Acis.

As conductor Oliver Gooch, now the artistic director of Iford Arts, recalled, Judy was always on the look-out for new and exciting talent, and 21 years ago she brought Curnyn and his musicians to the cloister on the Somerset-Wiltshire border for the first of what would be many visits. Curnyn’s productions were adventurous, sometimes controversial but always musically exciting.

Gooch praised Judy’s “eager eye and keen ear [that] sought out the very best talent” and this last concert of the 2021 Iford Arts season fully lived up to this reputation.

The 1718 opera is based on one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which retell various Greek myths. The sea nymph Galatea and the shepherd Acis are blissfully in love. But the monster Polyphemus (the splendid bass-baritone Edward Grint) also has his eye on the vivacious nymph. Despite the efforts of Acis’ friend Damon (tenor Jorge Navarro-Colorado), the Arcadian romance is shattered by the monster’s jealousy.

The character of Polyphemus is much the most interesting of the four soloists and Grint brought out the torment of the creature – who could be seen as a prototype for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s monster. He is capable of love but is unable to control his passions and has no understanding of his capacity for violence.

The evening ended with a heart-felt and spontaneous standing ovation for Judy and her husband John, who has been a tireless supporter, providing practical help and financial expertise, throughout nearly three decades of Iford Arts.

The organisation is now based in Bradford-on-Avon, performing at a variety of venues, including the beautiful gardens of Belcombe Court.

Pictured: Bass baritone Edward Grint as Polyphemus; Katherine Crompton as Galatea and Nick Pritchard as Acis; Judy Eglington listens to the encore by soprano Katherine Crompton.

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