Acis and Galatea of 1718 has been described as a serenata, masque, pastoral, pastoral opera or (in a letter that Handel wrote while he was composing it) ‘little opera’. It is not, however, the first work that Handel composed based on the story from Ovid’s Metamorphosis, having created a version in Italian, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, ten years earlier.
The serenata was commissioned by Duchess Aurora Sanseverino of Laurenzana for the wedding of her niece, Princess Beatrice di Montemiletto, to the Duca d’Alvito on 19 July 1708, where it was performed alongside works by Porpora, Perti and Mancini. The Duchess, who loved classicism, probably chose the subject herself, while her secretary Nicola Giuvo wrote the libretto, which does not remain as faithful to Ovid as Acis and Galatea. The story might seem an unlikely choice for a wedding, although it does speak of love enduring on a higher level. Nevertheless, despite the groom not surviving long into the marriage, the work proved immensely popular, being revived in 1711 for the wedding of Count Pasquale d’Alife and Marie-Magdalene de Croy, and then for a four-year old’s name day.
However, although in 1732 Handel presented a mish-mash of this version and his Canons Acis and Galatea in response to a pirate performance of the latter by Thomas Arne, he never presented the original version in England. In addition, although he plundered material from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo for Rinaldo, Poro, Sosarme, Deborah and Atalanta, he did not use a single note of it for Acis and Galatea, with the result that, excepting the odd snippet that we might recognise from a subsequent opera or oratorio, the work feels entirely fresh and new.
Katie Hawks suggests that ‘Aci is more in line with the pastoral dramas which formed the backbone of the Arcadian Academy, cantatas which delighted in literary and musical conceits, rather than strong plots’, and this point reveals itself, in particular, in the way in which Polifemo is portrayed. While in Acis he feels oafish and thuggish, though his lovelorn manner can still arouse sympathy, here he comes across as more upstanding and thus less conducive to the theatricality of storytelling. Nevertheless, he still reveals a vast range of emotions, so that we feel for him in ‘Non sempre, no, crudele’ when he sings ‘my faithful heart you take for sport’. Conversely, in ‘Precipitoso’ his proclamation ‘I am accustomed when deprived of hope to become yet more wrathful’ is as chilling as anything he declares in the later work.
It was useful that this performance by the London Handel Orchestra, directed by Adrian Butterfield who also played the violin across the evening, provided the best chance for comparison between the characters as bass-baritone Edward Grint also played Polyphemus last year when the LHO presented Acis and Galatea. Then he was in costume, whilst now he was in concert dress, but that in itself says something about the differing nature of the works. With his extremely strong and versatile baritone, he impressed in particular in ‘Far l’ombre e gl’orrori’, a good proportion of which sits extremely low. Much has been written about the exaggerated musical range of Polyphemus in Acis, but this aria (which was later to be used in Sosarme) goes from A flat above middle C to D nearly two octaves below it.
The poetry is Petrarchan, and within it there are many references to the Duchess through the use of the words ‘aurora’ and ‘alloro’, standing for ‘lauro’ as in Laurenzana, and ‘aquila’, signifying the eagle in her coat of arms. In fact, in the case of Aci’s aria ‘Dell’aquila ‘artigli’, in which she sings ‘If of an eagle’s clutches a snake is not afraid’, one could not help but feel that the desire to have mention of an eagle trumped all other considerations. Overall, the music is extremely beautiful and balanced as fast and slow, and fully scored and continuo-only, arias frequently alternate, while some highly skilful duets and trios appear. There are also some surprises as Polifemo enters to a large fanfare, with in this instance a door to the Wigmore stage opening to reveal the trumpeters. Originally both Aci and Galatea would have been sung by castrati, and here Anna Dennis gave a superb performance as the former, as her sweet soprano tempered real edge with an ability to bring exceptional lightness to certain lines, while mezzo-soprano Anna Huntley as the latter shaped her sound to perfection.
This performance was a part of the 2019 London Handel Festival, which continues until 29 April. For full details of all events visit the designated website.