Acis and Galatea
Nicolas Poussin: Landscape with Polyphemus
|Dramatis Personae and scene breakdown|
|Some useful web links|
|The story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a fast-moving sequence of interlocking stories, describing nymphs and shepherds transformed into trees, rocks, rivers, or animals, quite often as a result of a Greek god indulging him or herself. Part traditional, part invented, they illustrate, amongst other things, the Pythagorean transmigration of souls. They also contain perhaps the most witty and ingenious writing that has come down to us from the ancient world. These stories caught the imagination of artists through ten centuries, and in spite of the decline of interest in classical literature through the last century we are still familiar with many of them (indeed, a new translation by Ted Hughes made the best-seller lists not so very long ago): the tales of Apollo and Daphne, Pan and Syrinx, Narcissus, Orpheus and Euridice, Pygmalion, whether we know of them through painting or sculpture or opera, they all derive eventually from the Metamorphoses.
In 1717 a new translation of the Metamorphoses was announced, by various gentlemen of fashion and letters, including Alexander Pope and his friend John Gay. Everybody with any literary pretensions wanted to contribute - it was very much the fashionable thing to do. Also in 1717 the Italian opera company in London was going through a bad time: the rival playhouses were mounting a lively attack, promoting patriotic English entertainments and the late English Orpheus Henry Purcell : they countered the Italian operas with English musical masques, as they called them, such as Dido and Aeneas. More seriously, the opera’s financial arrangements had become extremely confused, and the whole enterprise had to be suspended for two years, until the founding of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719 brought the great era of Italian - and Handelian - opera to London. Handel, not yet commissioned by the Academy, but already part of fashionable London society, found a niche well insulated from the problems of the opera, at the country house of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (later Duke of Chandos).
This country house, called Cannons, was at Edgware, far enough from London to be pleasantly rural, though not so far that one couldn’t ride back to be in town for dinner. Brydges had made a fortune and acquired a title through fairly dubious financial dealings, but was eager to spend his money in the pursuit of art. He kept a small band of musicians and a large number of landscape gardeners in constant employment on his vast and luxurious estate. Handel was too grand to be his house composer - Pepusch held that post - but for nearly two years, during which time there are no records of his being in London, he is thought to have enjoyed the Earl’s patronage at Cannons, composing the “Chandos” anthems for the Earl’s chapel, and also a “little opera”.
Handel had already encountered the theme: in Rome, in 1708, he had composed a Serenata called Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. However, Acis and Galatea is completely different, and owes much more to the contemporary London cultural scene. John Gay wrote the libretto with some help from Alexander Pope, John Hughes, and the Queen’s physician John Arbuthnot, and Handel composed the music in the spring of 1718. He called it at first a Masque, since it was short and in English. Its subsequent performance history is very complicated: Handel revived it several times in later years, changing it every time, and sometimes incorporating music from the earlier Italian Serenata. It was immensely popular in all its incarnations - King George III himself commanded no fewer than 24 performances.
Away from the oversophisticated society of Town, to an equally mannered version of the country - what could be more appropriate than a pastoral tale taken from the currently fashionable Ovid, a tale of nymphs and shepherds, or rather town society dressed up as shepherds, who find Nature at her rawest, in the shape of Polypheme, who is an excellent if physically repulsive farmer with an unfortunate habit of eating people.
Their understandable disgust at Polypheme is at first very much that of the weekend visitor to the country who inadvertently steps in a cowpat. Polypheme is at first a figure of fun, unfashionably offering plums and cream instead of civilised poetic metaphors, but when rejected, he reveals his truly savage side. Their mockery changes to genuine fear at the destructive power he unleashes.
But the soul cannot be utterly destroyed, a belief common both to Pythagorean Ovid and Christian Handel, and what began, long before Ovid, as a curious story of demi-gods (invented partly to explain a river-name), becomes a parable on Nature, Art, the destructive power of hate, and the transforming power of love, as Acis becomes a part of Nature, in the shape of a gentle life-giving river, inspiration of poets to come.
This is the eighteenth century: the aesthetic system dictates that physical ugliness is supposed to be the indication of an ugly soul. In this case Polypheme is ugly because he is vain, unrestrained, irrational and gives in to his nastiest passions. However, John Gay was writing for an educated, witty audience, who knew perfectly well that things are not so simple, and that beautiful people can be shallow, ugly people can have genuine feelings, and that gentleness and destruction are equally Natural.
Coridon tenor 
[Clori] mezzo 
Chorus SSATTB [orig GC3C4C4F]
Orchestra: 1718: vl, vl, ob, ob (doubling recorders), bassoon, basso continuo.
Recit accomp Galatea Ye verdant plains
Duet Happy we
Chorus [GC3C4F] Happy we
PART THE SECOND
|Some links to Handel webpages|
|The Handel House in London|
|The Handel House in Halle|
|G.F.Handel.org nb includes a very useful links page|