musica Dei donum

CD reviews

George Frideric HANDEL (1685 - 1759): Acis and Galatea (HWV 49a)

Boston Early Music Vocal & Chamber Ensembles
Dir: Paul O'Dette, Stephen Stubbs

rec: June 27 - July 1, 2013, Bremen, Sendesaal Radio Bremen
CPO - 777 877-2 (2 CDs) (© 2015) (1.47'18")
Liner-notes: E/D/F; lyrics - translations: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Acis and Galatea (HWV 49a)a; Sarei troppo felice (HWV 157)b

Amanda Forsythe (solob), Teresa Wakim (Galateaa), soprano; Jason McStoots (Damona), Aaron Sheehan (Acisa), Zachary Wilder (Coridona), tenor; Douglas Williams (Polyphemusa), bass-baritone
Kathryn Montoya, Gonzalo X. Ruiz, recorder, oboe; Dominic Teresi, bassoon; Robert Mealy, Cynthia Roberts, violin; Laura Jeppesen, viola da gambab; Phoebe Carrai, cello; Rob Nairn, double bass; Paul O'Dette, archlute; Stephen Stubbs, theorbo, guitar; Avi Stein, harpsichord

"Few German sovereign Princes live with that magnificence, grandeur and good order", John Macky - who worked as an agent for the English government under William III - wrote in his A journey through England. In familiar letters from a gentleman here, to his friend abroad. He referred to James Brydges, Count of Carnavon, who was later to become Duke of Chandos. The Count invited George Frideric Handel to Cannons, where he stayed for over a year as a composer in residence (1717/18). Here Handel composed his Chandos Anthems and the first version of the oratorio Esther. It was also for a performance at Cannons that he created Acis and Galatea, on a libretto by John Gay (1), probably with contributions of Alexander Pope (2) and John Hughes (3). It has been given various labels, such as oratorio, opera and serenade. The best label is probably a masque.

Originally this was a typically English form of secular entertainment, a mixture of music and spoken text. It was a form of the 17th century, when opera had not made its appearance in England as yet. It became popular again in the early decades of the 18th century, as an English counterpart to Italian opera. It is not without irony, as Ellen T. Harris mentions in her contribution to the booklet of the present production, that the two composers who were involved in the attempts to create an English opera, were of foreign birth: John Galliard and John Pepusch were both from Germany. And so was Handel, and considering that he had already performed some Italian operas of his own in London, he could not be expected to support any attempt to create an alternative to the latter.

The subject of Acis and Galatea was not new for Handel. He had already composed the serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo in Naples in 1708. The popularity of this subject - in 1701 John Eccles had already written a masque on the same story - can be explained by the fact that Ovid, from whose Metamorphoses it is taken, was by far the most beloved author of Latin antiquity. The booklet notes refer to the art historian Erwin Panofsky who "used to quip that the Bible and the Metamorphoses provided most of what anyone needed to understand Western art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance." It fitted into the "Arcadian Visions" - that is the title of this part of the liner-notes, which refers to what was the main subject of cantatas and comparable secular works of the period. Handel had become acquainted with it in the 'Arcadian Academy' of Rome, which invited him to become a member.

However, it was not just literature and music which were under the spell of the Arcadian ideals. The Duke of Chandos was an avid collector of paintings, among them paintings of Italian artists. Like the musicians an aristocrat had at his disposal, an art collection was an avenue of representation. The Duke was in constant competition with others, and wanted to own a collection which was larger and better than that of others. The quality of paintings depended not only on the painter, but also the subject. Biblical and mythological subjects were top of the bill. There is an interesting observation of Benjamin Weiss (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) in the booklet: "In some ways, it may be fruitful to think of Handel's Acis and Galatea as the most elaborate Arcadian painting in the duke’s collection. For Handel and Pope and Gay did not call their work an opera; they called it a 'pastoral', the very same term often used for painted versions of such mythological scenes. Thus, the work on this recording was, in its way, the very highest expression of art - a living, speaking, singing version of a Poussin." (4)

Another means of representation was the house of an aristocrat. At the time Handel entered his service the Duke of Chandos was involved in the construction and building of his house. This was surrounded by gardens in which waterworks took a prominent place. Gilbert Blin, in his part of the liner-notes, sees a connection here with the story of Acis and Galatea, as the former was killed by Polephemus and is then transformed into a bubbling fountain by Galatea. "In the gardens of the Chandos family, Handel, Pope, Gay, and Hughes, inspired by the water marvels of Desaguliers, had created a suitable Arcadian pastoral, and Cannons had found, in the water-god Acis, a perfect 'genius of the place'."

This background information, taken from the booklets of various recordings of Acis and Galatea, helps to explain, why this work became so popular. In Handel's lifetime it was performed more than 70 times. However, it was seldom performed in the way Handel originally intended. According to the autograph score it was conceived for five solo voices (soprano, three tenors, bass), which also sang the choruses, and an instrumental ensemble of two recorders, two oboes - played by the same performers - and two violins, plus two cellos and harpsichord. There were no parts for a viola or a double bass. However, as Winton Dean states in his liner-notes to William Christie's recording (Erato, 1999), the work was probably never performed in the autograph version. An early copy of 1718 indicates that a bassoon and a double bass had been added to the score, and the chorus 'Happy we' and the aria 'Would you gain the tender creature' to the libretto. That is the form in which it is presented here, marked on the title-page of the booklet as "the original chamber version of 1718". It is a little inconsistent that in the choruses Teresa Wakim is joined by Amanda Forsythe.

Although Handel used the forms of an opera, with recitatives and dacapo arias, it is questionable whether it was staged at Cannons. Blin refers to a theatre production in 1732, without the consent of the composer, which was advertised as "being the first Time it ever was performed in a Theatrical Way." Another performance, that same year, was supervised by Handel. The playbill announced clearly: "There will be no Action on the Stage." Therefore a staged performance seems to be against Handel's wishes.

In the booklet Blin states: "Handel intended Acis and Galatea to be performed before an audience, but not staged like a drama. He chose to present Acis and Galatea as a serenata in costumes in front of a theater set showing, "in a Picturesque Manner, a rural Prospect, with Rocks, Groves, Fountains and Grottos." The composite set of this performance looks like the view of a real garden, and one is irresistibly reminded of the Chandos estate. There is some evidence that for Cannons, Acis and Galatea was more a succession of pastoral pictures leading to an apotheosis than a real drama to be performed in a theatrical way. The allegorical content of the libretto and its variations around the water theme may indeed offer a key, if framed by this Arcadian set. The allegory of the power over water must have found in Cannons a setting full of reflections for the eyes of the Chandos family during the first performance."

To this one could add that Acis and Galatea is not very dramatic. The recitatives are rather short, much shorter than in Handel's operas. Polyphemus tries to destroy the happiness of Acis and Galatea and even kills his 'rival', but that does not mean that he is a real threat. One could even consider him a kind of tragicomic figure. He is portrayed as clumsy and uncivilized rather than as bloodthirsty.

From this angle it seems right that the recording has a kind of intimacy and that the performance is not overly dramatic. The story unfolds in a relatively quiet tempo. The singers avoid extensive and virtuosic ornamentation. Italian operas were also meant as vehicles for singers to show off. That is certainly not the case here, and the singers understand that. The listener can concentrate on the beautiful arias, of which there are so many in Acis and Galatea, and the nice obbligato parts for, for instance, recorder and oboe. The soloists deliver excellent accounts of their respective parts, and they are on the same wavelength. Unfortunately that also concerns the use of vibrato which is always present, albeit not very wide. Teresa Wakim is most restrained in this respect, and she delivers a wonderful performance of the role of Galatea. The instrumentalists are outstanding.

The addition of the cantata Sarei troppo felice is a bit odd. It dates from 1707 and is one of the earliest compositions which Handel wrote in Italy. The text is from the pen of Cardinal Benedetto Pamphilj and the cantata was written for him, who acted as Handel's patron. It is scored - as most chamber cantatas of the time - for soprano and bc. It comprises two arias, ambraced by three recitatives; one of the latter brings the work to a close. It has no connection whatsoever with Acis and Galatea, except that it is about love, but that was the subject of nearly all secular music. That said, its inclusion is welcome as it is a little-known piece; on ArkivMusic I couldn't find any recording (the present disc is not mentioned). Amanda Forsythe delivers a convincing interpretation, but again her singing is marred by vibrato, and much wider than that of the singers in Acis and Galatea. From that perspective there is certainly room for another recording.

All in all this production is a welcome addition to the Handel discography. The essays in the booklet are most helpful in increasing our understanding of Handel's early years in England.

(1) John Gay, English poet and dramatist
(2) Alexander Pope, English poet
(3) John Hughes, English poet
(4) Nicolas Poussin, French painter

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

Relevant links:

Boston Early Music Festival

CD Reviews