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Acis and Galatea is first mentioned as being a ‘Masque’ in the Duke’s catalogue of 1720. The heyday of the form had been nearly a century before when mime, music, dancing, spoken dialogue and lavish spectacle had been combined by figures such as Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones to make court entertainments of great splendour. The Masque never again recaptured the full glory of its Elizabethan form, but it did continue to serve as entr’actes in plays and operas for many years. In early eighteenth-century London the form recurred, partly as a home-grown reaction against the increasing popularity of Italian opera. Mostly these masques were short operas on pastoral or mythological subjects, usually divided into two ‘interludes’ or ‘entertainments’, and Handel would certainly have had first-hand experience of the work of two principal providers, the composer Pepusch and the poet John Hughes.
The story comes from Dryden’s translation of the thirteenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which appeared in London in 1717. In a libretto of 1730, Alexander Pope is named as the author of Handel’s text, but in one of 1739 John Gay is credited; the words of the aria ‘Would you gain the tender creature’ are certainly by John Hughes. As Handel would have known the three poets through Lord Burlington’s circle it would not be unreasonable to suggest that all three may have had a hand in the libretto: such a practice was not uncommon.
Handel made numerous revisions of the score, especially for later revivals, adding extra movements (in Italian!) and a chorus version of ‘Happy we’ (rather than the original duet). He also increased the scoring to include violas (which were absent from the Cannons orchestra) and even a carillon in 1739. Some versions included a third tenor part for the character named Coridon, giving him Damon’s aria ‘Would you gain the tender creature’: in most versions, however, this fifth voice appears only in the choruses, being suited to either a very high tenor or a countertenor. (The possibility of the former must be considered as the Chapel choir at Cannons did not employ countertenors, though the range is much more suited to a falsettist.)
Throughout the masque the chorus plays an important role, setting the scene, observing and commenting, and ultimately even participating in the action. Not since Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas had it been so inextricably bound up with the drama. After a splendid Overture the scene opens on ‘a rural prospect, diversified with rocks, groves and a river’ and the chorus sets the happy scene of Arcadian bliss. Only the sea nymph Galatea is unhappy, and in ‘Hush ye pretty warbling choir’, delightfully scored for sopranino recorder and upper strings, she pines for her beloved Acis and rebukes the birds. However, unknown to Galatea, Acis too is distracted by love, and in ‘Where shall I seek the maiden fair?’ comes across as suitably youthful and impetuous. Damon is the rational element, worldly-wise and always advising caution. Here he reminds Acis that he is neglecting his shepherdly duties: there is plenty of time for such passions. But Acis is not listening, and Damon’s attempts to keep up with him are portrayed in the running bass line of ‘Shepherd, what art thou pursuing?’. The pace relaxes with the siciliano ‘Love in her eyes sits playing’ and Galatea’s elegant minuet ‘As when the dove’, before young love can wait no longer, and the lovers finally meet in the breathless duet ‘Happy we’.
Act Two increases the pace of the drama: the foreboding opening of the chorus ‘Wretched lovers’ is overtaken by the arrival of ‘the monster Polypheme’ whose enormous strides and thunderous voice are graphically portrayed in yet another change of mood. Of the four characters, it is the monster Polyphemus who is the most complex, for we are left unsure whether to take him seriously or not. Handel portrays him with more than a note of humour and certainly as being larger than life: at the same time as being a pathetic failure, the monster’s behaviour is horrific. This contrast is shown between the recitativo accompagnato ‘I rage, I melt, I burn’ (which parodies moments of similar tension in opera seria), and the following aria ‘O ruddier than the cherry’ which goes to the opposite extreme, earnestly tuneful and incongruously delicate, with a monster who has just demanded ‘a hundred reeds of decent growth to make a pipe for my capacious mouth’ accompanied by the smallest instrument in the orchestra, a sopranino recorder. Love has temporarily reduced Polyphemus to a gentle giant. But the humour does not last, and Galatea’s abrupt dismissal of him ‘Go monster, bid some other guest: I loathe the host, I loathe the feast’ brings on impatience. Polyphemus does not even wait for the orchestra’s opening ritornello in ‘Cease to beauty to be suing’. Damon urges Polyphemus to try the soft approach in the charming aria ‘Would you gain the tender beauty’, but Acis is already preparing for combat in the military ‘Love sounds the alarm’ (no need for trumpets here: Handel uses the oboe and strings to great dramatic effect). Damon once again tries the cautious approach, with a liltingly pastoral aria ‘Consider, fond shepherd’, and Galatea begs Acis to trust her constancy. But the couple can wait no longer, and Handel is able to employ a movement of great drama with the gentle duet ‘The flocks shall leave the mountains’ subjected to Polyphemus’s ferocious interruptions. Here we are left in no doubt that we have a none-too-intelligent brute with murder on his mind. Already furious at his failure to woo Galatea, Polyphemus cannot cope with the scene he now sees in front of him. He exacts his furious revenge by crushing Acis beneath a stone, and Acis, crying for help in a highly charged chromatic accompagnato, dies. The chorus laments his death in ‘Mourn all ye muses’, and Handel uses the unaccompanied consort of voices particularly effectively at ‘The gentle Acis is no more’. Galatea mourns her loss, and it is the chorus who advises Galatea to invoke her divine powers. After a particularly poignant recitative she immortalizes Acis in the deliciously scored aria ‘Heart, the seat of soft desire’. Two treble recorders and gently undulating strings provide an exquisite texture: Galatea has turned Acis into a fountain. But it is left until the middle of the aria for the moment of magic. Galatea commands: ‘Rock, thy hollow womb disclose the bubbling fountain’ and (almost disbelieving her own power), ‘Lo! it flows’. All that now remains is for the chorus to end the work: Galatea is told to dry her tears, for the murmuring stream that flows out across the plain still speaks of their love.
from notes by Robert King © 1989
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