Acis and Galatea (HWV 49) is a musical work by George Frideric Handel with an English text by John Gay. The work has been variously described as a serenata, a masque, a pastoral or pastoral opera, a "little opera" (in a letter by the composer while it was being written), an entertainment and in the New Grove Dictionary of Music an oratorio. The work was originally devised as a one-act masque which premiered in 1718.
Handel later adapted the piece into a three-act serenata for the Italian opera troupe in London in 1732, which incorporated a number of songs (still in Italian) from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, his 1708 setting of the same story to different music. He later adapted the original English work into a two-act work in 1739.
Acis and Galatea was the pinnacle of pastoral opera in England. Indeed, several writers, such as musicologist Stanley Sadie, consider it the greatest pastoral opera ever composed. As is typical of the genre, Acis and Galatea was written as a courtly entertainment about the simplicity of rural life and contains a significant amount of wit and self-parody. The secondary characters, Polyphemus and Damon, provide a significant amount of humor without diminishing the pathos of the tragedy of the primary characters, Acis and Galatea. The music of the first act is both elegant and sensual, while the final act takes on a more melancholy and plaintive tone. The opera was significantly influenced by the pastoral operas presented at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane during the early 18th century. Reinhard Keiser and Henry Purcell also served as influences, but overall the conception and execution of the work is wholly individual to Handel.
Acis and Galatea was by far Handel's most popular dramatic work and is his only stage work never to have left the opera repertory. The opera has been adapted numerous times since its premiere, with a notable arrangement being made by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1788. Handel never gave the work in the form in which it is generally heard today, since it contains music which, while by Handel, was never added by him.
The cast of the 1718 version is unknown.
|Role||Voice type||Revised version, 10 June 1732|
|Galatea||soprano||Anna Maria Strada del Pò|
|Acis||alto castrato||Francesco Bernardi, called "Senesino"|
|Cloris||soprano||Ann Turner Robinson|
|Silvio||tenor||Giovanni Battista Pinacci|
Since Acis and Galatea has been adapted many times, it is impossible to provide a single synopsis that accurately reflects every presentation of the work. The following is a synopsis for the typical two-act presentation of the work that is most often used for modern performances.
Shepherds and nymphs enjoy "the pleasure of the plains". Galatea, a semi-divine nymph, is in love with the shepherd Acis, and tries to hush the birds that ignite her passion for him (Recit."Ye verdant plains" & Aria"Hush, ye pretty warbling quire!") Acis's close friend, the shepherd Damon, provides counsel to the lovers as they pursue each other. He sings a beautiful siciliana-style serenade, "Love in her eyes sits playing", upon their first meeting. The act closes with a duet by the young lovers, "Happy we", which is echoed by a chorus (not in the Cannons original).
The opera shifts from its pastoral and sensual mood into an elegiac quality as the chorus warns Acis and Galatea about the arrival of a monstrous giant, Polyphemus, singing "no joy shall last". The fugal minor-key of the chorus's music along with the percussive lines in the lower instruments, indicating the heavy footsteps of the giant, provides an effective dramatic transition into the more serious nature of the second act. Polyphemus enters singing of his jealous love for Galatea, "I rage, I melt, I burn", which is in a part-comic furioso accompanied recitative. This is followed by his aria "O ruddier than the cherry" which is written in counterpoint to a sopranino recorder. Polyphemus threatens force but is somewhat soothed by the impartial shepherd, Coridon ("Would you gain the tender creature"). Meanwhile, Acis ignores Damon’s warning of the fleeting existence of love's delight ("Consider, fond shepherd") and responds hostilely with the determination to resist ("Love sounds th’ alarm"). Acis and Galatea promise eternal fidelity to each other in what begins as a duet ("The flocks shall leave the mountains") but ultimately turns into a trio when Polyphemus intrudes and brutally murders Acis in a rage. Galatea, along with the chorus, mourns the loss of her love ("Must I my Acis still bemoan"). The chorus reminds her of her deity and that with her divine powers she can transform Acis's corpse into a beautiful fountain. The opera closes with Galatea's larghetto air, "Heart, the seat of soft delight", where she exerts her powers to enact the transformation, ending with the chorus celebrating Acis's immortalisation.