Richard Bratby

You could have built a tent city from all the red chinos: Aci by the River reviewed

Plus: a thrilling Lucia di Lammermoor at the Royal Opera House

Claudia Huckle’s voice burned with pain as the bereaved Galatea in Aci by the River. Image: © Craig Fuller

The Thames cruise for which Handel composed his Water Music in 1717 famously went on until around 4 a.m. The boat trip downstream that formed part of the London Handel Festival’s Aci by the River was a bit zippier. We piled onto a chartered Thames Clipper at Westminster Pier, and a quartet of wind players were already huddled in the gangway, playing suitably aquatic Handel favourites. A bassoonist gave an anxious grimace as the captain floored the throttle and the boat lurched forward.

If our craft had been wrecked on some enchanted isle, we could have built a tent city from the red chinos

You do get to see an older, more Hogarthian city from the river, even if the skies were London-drab rather than the hoped-for Canaletto blue. One rationale for interactive music events is to attract that elusive younger, funkier audience, but this looked very much like the standard opera crowd to me. If, in authentic baroque style, our craft had been beset by vengeful water gods and wrecked on some enchanted isle unknown to the Port of London Authority, we could have built a tent city from all the red chinos.

Anyway: a pirouette in the river opposite the Millennium Dome and we tied up at Trinity Buoy Wharf to a fanfare of valveless trumpets. The venue was a converted warehouse where an independent production company, Cyclops Pictures, was apparently filming a site-specific, Sky Arts-y updating of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, and the director, Paolo Polifemo, was already brooding over his production desk in sunglasses, looking every bit your basic arts-sector nightmare. Runners fiddled with cameras and lights, and singers wandered in with a wave (‘Hi Laurence!’) to the conductor, Laurence Cummings, and the period instrument orchestra, gathered in the corner.

A lot of set-up then; arguably disproportionate to a work as slight as Handel’s one-act pastoral tragedy. But the trick with a piece like Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is to open it out. The director was Jack Furness, and every piece he touches gets its own bespoke world, reimagined from the ground up in a way designed to make it sing. For Aci, it made perfect sense to begin by transporting the entire audience a long way out of normality. Like any illusion, it was quickly shattered; but by then Handel was doing the heavy lifting (Cummings and his orchestra played with buoyant, unforced grace) and the cast were wriggling out of their civvies and into something more mythic.

They were all excellent, and entirely committed to the concept. Mary Bevan was an expressive Aci, Claudia Huckle’s voice burned with pain as the bereaved Galatea, and Callum Thorpe was absolutely thunderous as Polifemo – the air practically shook when he sang. Opera in a confined space is always a high-stakes game, but with a cast of this quality the pay-off in terms of sheer visceral impact is unarguable. Furness is particularly expert with lighting and video; and the film-studio concept allowed alternative realities to be projected back against the very physical tragedy unfolding just yards from our feet.

The final moment of transcendence came when the huge warehouse doors slowly opened and Huckle wandered out into an afterlife in which the pink-and-blue lights of London’s cable car moved slowly against the black night sky: Arcadian myth and neon-lit future all gliding into alignment against yearning baroque music. Then we applauded, the lights went up and it was time to find out if you can call an Uber from the netherworld – or at least, from Canning Town.

Katie Mitchell’s staging of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor was controversial when it first appeared in 2016, and having seen this revival by Robin Tebbutt I can only assume that was due to all the blood in the final act, Lucia having (in Mitchell’s vision) suffered a miscarriage. But why soft-pedal an opera that was conceived as a shocker? In all respects, the Victorian settings – the moonlit graveyard, the wandering ghosts – seemed admirably gothick and the logic of Lucia’s harrowing mental collapse emerged naturally from both plot and music. Giacomo Sagripanti conducted: he caught the atmosphere and the emotional swell without ever sounding forced.

Nadine Sierra was Lucia, and this really was her night. Even her hyperactive fans (who exploded like a grenade after her first number, and were practically uncontainable after the Mad Scene) couldn’t obscure the hushed, tenderly phrased pathos of Sierra’s quieter singing and the vulnerability of her acting. Mitchell’s characters always react like human beings, and the scene in which Lucia’s small artistic consolations – her violin case, her half-finished paintings – were cleared from her room by her brother Enrico (Artur Rucinski, who made an exciting enough sound but didn’t seem capable of more detailed characterisation) was wrenching. Insung Sim made a compassionate, noble-sounding moral centre to the evening as the priest Raimondo, but in truth it’s all pretty thrilling, even – perhaps especially – if you’re normally allergic to bel canto.