Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Acis & Galatea Notes

Ars Lyrica performs Handel's "Acis & Galatea" this Thursday in Bryan, Friday in Austin, and Sunday in Houston, TX. Synopsis and notes on the program are as follows:

Handel's Acis & Galatea, known during the composer’s lifetime as “the most perfect work” he had yet written, is the pinnacle of pastoral opera. It is peopled with happy shepherds and nymphs who celebrate the simplicity of rural life...until a monster arrives. Our production transports us to a serene, sultry day in an exotic watery paradise. On a deserted beach, a group of friends discover a chest full of island “treasures,” and slowly, a story unfolds. A beautiful water nymph conceals her divinity in the hope that she may enjoy true love with a mere shepherd. Her great beauty cannot be disguised, however, and it incites a fiery passion in the island monster, Polyphemus, who kills her shepherd lover. Death, of course, is not the end, and Galatea draws on her power to transform Acis into a flowing river whose ever-murmuring waters speak eternally of their love.

The poets John Gay, Alexander Pope, and John Hughes together fashioned the libretto from John Dryden’s translation of the classic story, as related in the thirteenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Handel’s score begins with a jaunty orchestral sinfonia, which leads directly to a cheerful opening chorus. Despite the jolly atmosphere, Galatea feigns unhappiness. Pleading with the birds to quiet their “thrilling strains,” she observes that their twittering (realized by a sopranino recorder in her first aria) only makes her desire for Acis stronger. Acis, meanwhile, has to be reminded by his companions Damon and Corydon that their first responsibility is to their flocks. Ignoring this sage advice, he becomes totally entranced with Galatea, who in turn offers her own reflections on their love. Both then join together in ecstatic duet, bringing Part I to a close.

Part II opens with a warning that something terrible is about to happen. When the monster Polyphemus enters, all the earth trembles before him. His wooing of Galatea is unsubtle but wonderfully colorful and even ironic in Handel’s clever hands (listen for the same recorder that Galatea sought to quiet in Part I). When Galatea spurns his advances, the monster becomes impatient, vowing to wage war if necessary to win her. Though Damon urges restraint, Acis counters with a shrill call to arms and ignores Corydon’s warning that he is being foolhardy. Galatea attempts to reassure Acis of her fidelity, and they both forswear all others, only to be interrupted repeatedly by Polyphemus, who has decided that Acis must go. And so the hapless shepherd is crushed by the monster’s heavy stone, leaving Galatea and her companions to ponder the fragility of human relationships.

This magical work was first given in 1718 at Cannons, the palatial residence of the Duke of Chandos, for whom Handel worked as court composer for about a year. At its Cannons première, Acis & Galatea was presented as a concert piece (or masque) in front of a painted backdrop, with five costumed singers reading from their books. Handel’s pastoral was not the first musical dramatization of this ancient fable. Charpentier, Lully, Bononcini, and the English composer John Eccles had all tried their hand at it before Handel composed, in 1708, a serenata entitled Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. Owing perhaps to the different language and new circumstances at Cannons, Handel’s 1718 return to this tale produced an entirely new work. In the 1730s and 1740s he made various changes to Acis & Galatea, including additional arias (some in Italian) as well as new orchestrations and rearrangements of movements from the original. Acis & Galatea enjoyed more performances during Handel’s lifetime than any other of his works and remained popular well into the 19th century: it was the first of four works by Handel orchestrated by Mozart in the late 1780s for performances in Vienna at Gottfried van Swieten’s musical salons; Mendelssohn too re-orchestrated and performed it, and Meyerbeer once attempted a staged version. A relatively compact work filled with inspired writing, it remains Handel’s most accessible work for the stage. © Tara Faircloth & Matthew Dirst