Acis and Galatea
August 22 at 3:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church
Keeping One Eye on Acis
The nice thing, from my perspective, about an opera as delightful and accessible as Handel’s Acis and Galatea is that little need be said by way of introduction. From the start Handel moves in familiar territory both musically and poetically. We can take a moment to focus on a few highlights from the score and also to set the work in its historical position. But beyond that, it is best experienced directly.
Discussions of English musical theater in the 17th and 18th centuries often get mired in terminology. Debates raged then and now over the proper classification of the “new stage music” being inspired by Italian models: opera, serenata, masque, oratorio and pastoral being just a few. The differences are more theoretical than real, and we will do our best to avoid such distractions. Call it what you will, Handel’s Acis and Galatea is surely one of the first and most successful extended secular music dramas in the English language.
Handel had already worked with the Acis legend in 1708 when he wrote a more intimate chamber opera Aci, Galatea e Poliferm in Italy. That work provided both structural guidance and thematic material to Handel’s longer, English version we hear this summer. But the real motivating force behind the new 1718 Acis was literary. England’s post-Renaissance literati felt a certain reverence for the classical idyll typified in the works of Theocritus, Longus, and Ovid. Three prestigious humanists had a hand in penning the libretto: John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and mainly John Gay, librettist of the wildly successful Beggar’s Opera. The challenge was to create an engaging depiction of untrammeled nature and naïve love tinged by the tragic.
Their libretto for Acis contains the core of the Ovidian story (related in Metamorphoses XIII, 750ff.): the love of Acis and Galatea for each other, the unrequited love of Polyphemus for Galatea, and finally the death and transcendence of Acis. Gay’s crucial innovation was to develop the character of Acis so that his stoning death at the hands of Polyphemus becomes more dramatically important. Whereas Ovid spends a majority of his text speaking through the voice of the Cyclops, Gay et al. delay the monster’s appearance all the way until the start of the second act. They also introduce a shepherd companion (Damon) who further “fleshes out” the persona of Acis and represents the impulse to never leave “the pleasure of the plains.”
Elevated poetry and idealism suited the intellectuals, but Handel knew that the masses would be unmoved by pastoral artifice. Pastoral is deception, and Handel needed to find a human connection. One means, taking a page from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, was to enhance the role of the chorus into something akin to classical tragedy. The expressive power of such an approach can be heard in the masterful choral beginning to Act II, “Wretched lovers,” filled with delicious chord changes, biting dissonance, and a perfect hand-off from chorus to strings at the moment they deliver their fateful message: “No joy shall last.”
In a curious way, Handel was the perfect person to ignite English opera. Native English composers had little or no experience with Italian opera, and the Italians refused to adapt their talents to the English language. Having worked both in Rome and London, this “wandering minstrel” could merge what he had learned in each country: that character is king; that recitative carries action while arias need to be formal moments for personal reflection; that there is a role for learned counterpoint even in the effortless realm of Arcadia. The Italian style comes through in the brilliant opening Sinfonia: an ingratiating rhythmic ride punctuated at times by pastoral woodwinds. Modulation and sequence keep the movement bristling along straight into a striking deceptive cadence, which wrenches us out of the joyful bustle of the hills into the human arena of recitative. But there is no text here, no singer, just a symbolic, plaintive solo line for shepherd’s pipe (i.e., oboe). That is just enough description to whet the appetite, perhaps, and Handel’s score is full of such attention to detail—as I hope you will discover.
Acis and Galatea caused something of a minor sensation from the very start. However, its success was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Handel’s stock rose immensely in his newly adopted home (London) and laid the seed for the subsequent flourishing of English opera. But on the other hand, the money to be made from pirated, often crudely altered editions of Acis was too much for some persons to resist. Handel constantly encountered bastardized productions of Acis and, eventually, he stepped in to produce authorized revivals of the work during the 1730s. Even these, however, were carried along by the winds of changing fashion: the 1732 production, for instance, was billed as an “oratorio” (essentially an unstaged opera) with only four arias and three choruses in English—the rest being sung in Italian! Reprisals continued over the next few years as Handel gradually moved farther and farther away from the tight, pristine, consistent pastoral that he had written in 1718. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that the original Acis and Galatea score, in English, was resurrected.
(c) Jason Stell, 2021