Thursday, June 30, 2011

Boston Early Music Festival: Handel's Acis and Galatea

Teresa Wakim as Galatea/Lady Chandos, and Aaron Sheehan as Acis/Lord Chandos
(Below: Wakim with Douglas Williams as Polyphemus/Alexander Pope)

Handel composed the English-language masque Acis and Galatea in 1718 when he was composer in residence at Cannons, the suburban London estate of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon (later Duke of Chandos, the name by which I will refer to him in the rest of this post).

That the Duke chose to patronize Handel is something of a curiosity. Handel had been invited to London as a composer of Italian opera, and during his first five years in England he devoted most of his compositional energies to opera seria: he wrote Rinaldo (1711), Il pastor fido (1712), Teseo (1713), Silla (1713), and Amadigi (1715), most of which were performed by impresario Aaron Hill's company at the Haymarket Theater.

But Italian operas, and in particular the castrati who were their stars, were not universally admired in England. A number of satirists published attacks on the form for its supposed effeminacy, decadence, foreignness, and absurdity. And when Hill's opera company reached the end of its financial tether in June 1717, Handel soon found himself at Cannons working with some of the arch-enemies of Italian opera: members of the satirical Scriblerus Club such as Alexander Pope, John Gay, and John Hughes.

Pope later excoriated Italian opera (but praised Handel) in The Dunciad (1728); Gay mocked Italian opera in The Beggar's Opera (1728), whose music (including tunes taken from Handel operas) was arranged by Johann Pepusch, the Duke's musical director at Cannons; and Hughes later occasioned Samuel Johnson's famous comment that he created works "intended to oppose or exclude the Italian opera, an exotic and irrational entertainment, which has been always combated, and always has prevailed" (Samuel Johnson, The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779)).

Such companions would not seem to have been entirely congenial to the cosmopolitation composer who had devoted a large share of his creative energies to Italian opera. But Handel knew the Scriblerians well—he had met them at Burlington House, the London home of his previous patron Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington—and Handel was nothing if not adaptable. All of the music he produced for the Duke had English-language texts: eleven anthems based on the Psalms, the oratorio Esther (1718) to a libretto by Pope, and Acis and Galatea, whose libretto included contributions from Gay, Pope and Hughes.

Gay was the primary collaborator with Handel on Acis, adapting the text of John Dryden's The Story of Acis, Polyphemus and Galatea (1717). Dryden's poem was a translation of an incident from Book XIII of Ovid's Metamorphoses: The sea nymph Galatea is pursued by the Cyclops Polyphemus; she herself is in love with the the handsome young shepherd Acis (who in Ovid's telling also has semi-divine origins). In a jealous rage Polyphemus kills Acis; Galatea uses her divine powers to turn Acis' blood into a fountain (in Ovid, the origin of Sicily's River Acis), and Acis himself into a river-god.

Gilbert Blin's production of Acis and Galatea for the Boston Early Music Festival was just about the most intelligent staging imaginable. It was set as though we were watching a rehearsal at Cannons, with members of the court (in eighteenth-century costumes by Anna Watkins) taking the roles. It soon becomes clear that Acis (Aaron Sheehan) is the Duke himself, with Galatea (Teresa Wakim) being his wife, Lady Chandos, Polyphemus (Douglas Williams) Alexander Pope, and Acis' fellow shepherds, Damon (Jason McStoots) and Coridon (Michael Kelly), Handel and Gay.

Blin's assignment of roles to the historical personages present at Cannons in June 1718 was anything but arbitrary. The arias of Damon/Handel are all urgings to pleasure—surely a supreme value for a composer of Italian opera. McStoots did an especially beautiful (and poignant) job with the aria "Consider, fond Shepherd,/How fleeting's the pleasure/That flatters our hope/In pursuit of the fair" (there's a too-brief excerpt in the video below). Blin staged the aria, which Damon sings to Acis/Lord Chandos ostensibly about Galatea, to indicate Handel's own yearning for the Duke. Here Blin was drawing on the scholarship of Ellen Harris (a participant in the Festival), who in Handel as Orpheus: Voice and Desire in the Chamber Cantatas (Harvard University Press, 2001) posits a homoerotic subtext in the vocal chamber music Handel wrote during this period.

Polyphemus, the Cyclops, is portrayed by Alexander Pope. Polyphemus is hideous of aspect; the real-life Pope had suffered from dieases in childhood that stunted his growth and left him with severe curvature of the spine. Polyphemus nurtures a hopeless love for the beautiful Galatea, who loves Acis instead; Pope had an extravagant but apparently unrequited attachment to the married Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. When Polyphemus discovers Galatea with Acis, he explodes in rage and kills Acis to punish Galatea; when Pope felt spurned by Lady Mary, he published a savage and thinly veiled attack on her, writing that the fate of her male acquaintances was to be either "poxed by her love, or libelled by her hate." Watkins' costume for Polyphemus cleverly alludes both to the Cyclops and to Pope: he wears an eye-patch, making him one-eyed, and carries a large walking stick (later the instrument of Acis' death).

Musically the production was exquisite; Handel's vocal writing in Acis offers gorgeous aria after gorgeous aria. All of the five vocalists have wonderfully pure and pleasing voices, and their ornamentation of repeated aria verses was beautiful, intelligent, and truly enhanced the vocal line. The music looked back to Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas (1689) and The Fairy Queen (1692) in its lovely melodies, and forward to Mozart in an extraordinary trio where Polyphemus violently interrupts a love duet between Acis and Galatea; the treble instruments play the lovers' melody, while the bass instruments play Polyphemus'. The one-to-a-part instrumental forces, led by lutenist Paul O'Dette, baroque guitarist Stephen Stubbs, and harpsichordist Avi Stein, were perhaps somewhat smaller than those the Duke had at his disposal, but the stripped-down sound made the textures of Handel's writing wonderfully clear.

Acis and Galatea was the high point of our concert-going at the Boston Early Music Festival. It was so good that afterwards we decided on impulse to stay for the delightful late-night concert of duets by Handel and Agostino Steffani which followed.

But that's a post for another time. Here's a taste of this Acis production; we can only hope that the BEMF will soon release a full-length CD or DVD recording:

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