THERE could be no better place to perform Acis and Galatea than in the leafy landscape of Chilmark, in a real barn at Cleeves Farm, by kind permission of Mr & Mrs Pelham.

Handel’s pastoral opera, his first in English and one which has never fallen out of the repertory, celebrates the charms of the bucolic life; that is until the simple shepherds become involved with the gods. The reason for all this gods and mortals stuff is not that the subject was intended to be deadly serious but because in the England of 1718, with the Jacobites fuming away in Scotland, any theatre about real people or politics was distinctly unwise.

Classical stories provided the necessary social and political camouflage. And it was intended to be fun.

Under the ingenious direction of Jan Koene, who each year brings fresh insight into early opera at Chilmark it was just so in this production.

With no fear of politics, Koene reset the tale on the plains of India with Acis and Damon as young colonial administrators with an innocence bred on the playing fields of Eton.

Galatea was an Anglo-Indian girl and Polyphemus the put-upon Sepoy sergeant, condemned to guard the tiffin-guzzling chorus of expatriate British, forbidden to enjoy their pleasures.

Frustrated in his own desire for Galatea and driven by jealousy, he takes his rifle butt to Acis’ neck.

The fountain made its traditional appearance duly summoned up by Galatea.

‘Director’s Theatre’, where the original story is altered, can be disastrous but when it works, as it did at Chilmark, it can breathe fresh life into a well-worn story.

This allowed Ned Pattenden to give a well-judged exploration of the character of Polyphemus, not as a savage, but as a man made savage by his circumstances. Michael Solomon Williams as Acis and Hugo Hymas as Damon found their voices in the second act with some sustained lyrical singing.

Productions of this opera stand or fall on the voice and stagecraft of the soprano playing Galatea.

The rising Handelian star, Eloise Irving, fresh from the Edington Festival, brought her clarity of voice and perfect pitch to the task of portraying a young girl drawn to Acis but set apart from his roots and immersed in her own culture.

The orchestra, drawn from members of Salisbury Baroque and led by Alison Townley, gave Handel’s music the gusto it deserves, while David Davies, conducting, drew out the best from the enthusiasm of the local chorus who clearly meant it in the final reprise; ‘Happy we!’.

Min Wood