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Handel's Acis and Galatea: a guide to the dramatic opera and its best recordings

Created for a wealthy earl’s estate, Handel’s Ovid-inspired pastoral brilliantly brings its subjects to life; Paul Riley seeks the best versions

Published: February 3, 2022 at 3:46 pm

According to the music historian Charles Burney, who knew him well, ‘Handel’s look was somewhat heavy and sour, but when he did smile it was his sire the sun bursting out of a black cloud’. Across Handel’s music, is there anything to rival the sunburst that is Part I of Acis and Galatea, composed in 1718 for the pleasure-loving house guests of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon, and soon to be Duke of Chandos?

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Brydges had acquired an eye-watering fortune (by nefarious means) and was now remodelling his out-of-London estate at Cannons, Middlesex, where the Parish Church (for which Handel composed the Chandos Anthems) had been given an Italianate makeover, and the house itself restyled as a Palladian villa complete with terraced gardens boasting ostriches, flamingos, storks, macaws and, above all, a fountain. Leafy Edgware today might struggle to resemble the paradise envisaged by Brydges, but if ever a place deserved its gilding of bespoke musical Arcadia it was surely Cannons.

With Italian opera in abeyance and feuding between King George I and the Prince of Wales (the future George II) making it politic for Handel to keep out of the crossfire, the prospect of tackling the story of Acis and Galatea away from London must have appealed. And in fact he’d already dipped into Ovid’s Metamorphoses a decade earlier, concocting Aci, Galatea e Polifemo as part of the Neapolitan wedding celebrations for the Duke of Alvito.

What is the story behind Acis and Galatea?

It’s a simple tale, simply told by Ovid – as, indeed, it is by Handel, but with what sophistication! The shepherd Acis is in love with the sea-nymph Galatea, and for the whole of Part I they are deliriously happy or moping when apart. Cue a big black cloud. The cyclops Polyphemus is also smitten with Galatea and, provoked by jealousy, crushes Acis under a boulder. Happily, sea nymphs have special powers and Acis is granted immortality, transformed by Galatea into a gushing fountain. To turn Ovid’s mythical tale into an English libretto, Handel was fortunate to secure a cabinet of literary talents headed by John Gay – born in the same year as Handel, incidentally – and Alexander Pope.

Is Acis and Galatea an opera?

How to categorise the piece? Variously called a serenata, pastoral, masque, cantata, oratorio and opera, perhaps its least problematic designation is the endearingly straightforward ‘Mr Handel’s Music’. And just as the Chandos Anthems had, of necessity, been fashioned for a somewhat unusual line-up thanks to the vagaries of Brydges’s musical retinue, so too Acis. At Handel’s disposal were five singers (doubling up as soloists and chorus), a scant handful of strings, two oboes (doubling as recorders) and a harpsichord – though by the time of the performance a double bass seems to have been procured, plus a sopranino recorder, whose obligato contrast with Polyphemus’s bass produces a Shostakovich-like juxtaposition.

When was its first performance?

Beyond those forces, we know little about that first performance. It would be satisfying to think that it took place appropriately al fresco and proximate to Brydges’s handsome water feature. In any event, ‘Mr Handel’s Music’ surfaced again for a London benefit in 1731 and was given twice the following year by Thomas Arne (not the composer of ‘Rule, Britannia!’, but his father of that name, according to some scholars) – provoking Handel into a supersized riposte conflating parts of the earlier Italian serenata and the Cannons piece into a bilingual three-acts extravaganza.

Finally, in 1739 he reverted to the purely English Acis, adding a concluding chorus to the ‘Happy we!’ duet that ends Part I on such a high – and embossed it with a carillon for extra alluring bling. Published in 1743, Acis went on to muster more than 100 performances over Handel’s lifetime, and Mozart subsequently brought the scoring ‘up-to-date’ for Viennese tastes. In the 1820s, Mendelssohn – in a spot of plea-bargaining to facilitate his revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion with the Berlin Singakademie – expanded the orchestration even further and included an ophicleide-like corno inglese di basso to shadow the hapless Polyphemus.

Though seemingly unpretentious, Acis and Galatea was a major milestone in Handel’s output. A seasoned composer of Italian operas, he was now unwittingly honing his skills in setting English on an extended scale that would stand him in good stead when Italian opera finally yielded to English oratorio. And the constraints imposed by the unusual forces avaiable at Cannons challenged his imagination with profoundly liberating results. Acis, Galatea and even Polyphemus are not just creatures of myth, but arguably real people with real and powerful emotions. If we don’t thrill to ‘the pleasure of the plains’ or feel something of Polyphemus’s pain even as we laugh at his impossible ambition, we’re missing the essence of the humanity with which Handel imbues every note. Far from merely a modest country house entertainment, it’s actually one of his most perfectly achieved and quietly audacious creations.

Jeremy Pound named Acis and Galatea one of the best pieces of pastoral music ever

The best recordings of Acis and Galatea

Christian Curnyn (director)

Early Opera Company

Chandos CHSA 0404(2)

Although Handel tinkered with the score, there’s something about the directness and intimacy of the pared-back original that blossoms so beguilingly when appropriate forces are deployed. Adrian Boult recorded it with the London Symphony Orchestra, Joan Sutherland and Peter Pears in the mid 1960s, and as the taste for something lighter grew, so chamber orchestras such as Neville Marriner’s Academy of St Martin in the Fields stepped up to the plate. But that same year, (1978), John Eliot Gardiner and the period instruments of his newly formed English Baroque Soloists offered a historically informed alternative, and since then Acis has never looked back – revelling in the fruity sound of baroque oboes, the piercing piquancy of the sopranino recorder and a style of singing that that engages directly with one of the finest librettos Handel ever set.

Latest into the fray is Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company, and against strong competition this 2017 account snatches the crown. Not entirely surprisingly so – their Handelian credentials have long been rehearsed on stage and in the recording studio, and Curnyn ‘speaks Handel’ with a penetrating fluency and naturalness. The scale is essentially that of the Cannons first performance, but with six rather than four violins, the addition of a theorbo to enrich the continuo, and – why wouldn’t you! – the addition of the later choral afterthought to the duet ‘Happy we!’, here crackling with joy unconfined.

Curnyn’s pacing is lively – in the Sinfonia, whose chortling oboes hang on for dear life, some might say ‘excitable’ – and there isn’t a weak link in the casting. Lucy Crowe was born to sing Galatea: melismas float; kittenish sensuality propels ‘Happy we!’; numb simplicity seals the vulnerability of ‘Must I my Acis still bemoan’; and, swaddled amid murmuring recorders, her final aria ravishes. Allan Clayton’s impetuous, hot-headed Acis similarly compels, and ‘Love sounds the alarm’ marches to battle with a momentum that encourages a certain swaggering braggadocio. But tender lyricism is never wanting, and how affectingly he dies, Curnyn nurturing an almost Purcellian pathos at the end of the ensuing chorus. Neal Davies brings stentorian heft and presence to Polyphemus’s rages and gaucheries (though Matthew Brook in John Butt’s recording fleshes him out with even more lurid relish). Curnyn’s, in short, is a performance that leaves you savouring every note… and then some!

William Christie (director)

Erato 2564 659887

Christie and Les Arts Florissants have the theatre coursing through their veins, and any interventions in this 1999 account such as the spectacularly long choral trill in the first chorus reprise or a few ear-tickling Gallicisms never feel like gratuitous attention-seeking. The result is an eminently urbane reading based on a tweaked version of the original score (substituting a light-on-her-feet Patricia Petibon for the tenor Damon and succumbing to the later choral ending of Part I). It’s crowned by Sophie Daneman’s supple, coquettish Galatea.

John Butt (director)

Linn CKD319

If bearding Acis and Galatea in its 1718 Cannons lair is a consideration, no one dots the ‘i’s and crosses the ‘t’s more thoroughly than the Dunedin Consort in 2008. But John Butt’s scholarly insight always serves instinctive, vivid music-making. Tempos are often spacious and ‘The flock shall leave the mountains’ unfolds at a deliberate pace that allows Polyphemus’s flailing interjections maximum impact – Matthew Brook quite the most nuanced cyclops on disc. Susan Hamilton’s Galatea is a nymph of liquid loveliness. An illuminating antidote to more viscerally charged readings.

Eric Milnes (director)

Atma ACD 22302

Les Boréades de Montréal’s 2004 set exudes a lithe freshness and attention to instrumental detail that more than compensates for any quibbles. The opening chorus is enlivened with rustic drone effects, and the pin-sharp chirruping of ‘Hush, ye pretty warbling choir’ almost leaves Suzie LeBlanc’s appealing Galatea in the shade. Mark Bleeke’s Acis sometimes betrays signs of strain, but his first aria has French snap, crackle and pop aplenty. Milnes’s pacing, throughout, is spot on.

And one to avoid…

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Gerald Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra (with piccolo replacing sopranino recorder) laid down this anachronistic 1991 account a good decade after John Eliot Gardiner’s period instrument recording. It starts well with a lively Sinfonia, but elsewhere tempos often invite lethargy, recitatives are drawn out and heavy string bass line can lumber. Dawn Kotoski sounds a rather well-upholstered Galatea, but David Gordon makes a decent fist of Acis.

Authors

Paul RileyJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

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