Showing @ The Cottier Theatre, Glasgow, Thu 26 – Fri 27 Jun @ 22:00

An air of scepticism clouds Cottiers’ performance space as this minimal but bold production of Handel’s Acis and Galatea stages its opening moves. The acting is inauspicious, and the groans of opera devotees are palpable. It is explained, via ‘A Note’, that the proceeding intimate setting and small ensemble have been inspired by the work’s first performance (1718) on a North London estate. But why are these lads – one camply sporting vivid purple and breeches, one an edgy macho Scot – arguing in a fictitious pub?

Stevie/Damon (Christian Schneeberger) is attempting to recruit Jacob/Acis (Kenneth Reid) to his opera company after a schism involving a nasty critic and, possibly, amorous mishap. Slyly suggesting a quick run through of Acis, rehearsals intensify when old love reignites. All this dovetails neatly with Gay’s libretto, with its mix of lofty pastoral love, bawdy rustic song and inflated jealousy.

As it turns out, drama (or ‘mini opera’/’pastoral masque’/’Italian serenata’ – take your pick) is shrouded in drama. Once musically underway the faltering start leads swiftly to a wittily raucous interpretation. The audience are the onlookers in this ‘pub’. After Stevie/Damon casually mentions the night’s prior (real) performance and later as the singers swirl among viewers, the hazy boundaries of the two fictions (and reality) become enjoyably disorientating.

Both drama and characterisation are nudged more fully towards the contemporary framing, with Mark/Polyphemus (Sam Carl) more convincing as a recently spurned artist-lover than a bumbling monster. The Russian doll effect is maintained at varying degrees however, and the acting improves as the singers relax into their roles. Some moments of interaction between the singers are compelling; Louise/Galatea’s (Fiona Wilkie) disdainful attempts to release herself from Mark/Polyphemus’ crude and possessive clutches.

At the edges of the production – but ever so vitally – is John Butt at the harpsichord, directing the small group of instrumentalists with lively animation. Linking singers and musicians, his assured control and the deft lightness of the instrumental textures allow the singers to enjoy a roaming freedom within the space. Only very rarely does this freedom detract from the clarity of delivery, and the resulting intimacy between singer and audience more than compensates for this. As a chorus, the five young singers achieve the well-judged colouristic balance of a long-established ensemble.