Boston Early Music Festival revives the English pastoral opera with Acis and Galatea
George Frederick Handel is best known for the Messiah oratorio, but in his own lifetime his most popular work was Acis and Galatea, usually described as a pastoral opera. It was created in 1718—five years after the German-born composer moved to England—and its libretto was written by several of London’s leading wits and poets.
“It represents a very special snapshot of a moment in history,” says Stephen Stubbs, musical codirector of the Boston Early Music Festival, which is currently touring its production of the opera. “At this moment in Handel’s career he was under the patronage of James Brydges—later to become the Duke of Chandos—an unbelievably wealthy man who collected around him all the best minds of his time at his estate, called Cannons.”
From 1717 to ’18, Handel lived at Cannons, where he met many of the great poets of the age, among them John Gay and Alexander Pope. “The authorship of Acis and Galatea seems to be mostly Gay’s, but there’s some Pope in it as well, and some John Hughes,” says Stubbs, reached at his Seattle home. “To me, that doesn’t make it a patchwork, however, or less than the work of a single poet. It just means that Handel fell into a circle of literati who were trying to create an English opera to rival the Italian opera.”
The libretto’s narrative is based on a contemporary translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a series of classical myths and legends involving transformations, one of which tells of the love between the nymph Galatea and the shepherd Acis. It ends in tears when the jealous one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who has taken a fancy to Galatea, crushes her beau with a very large rock. After some lamentations, the resourceful nymph turns her slain lover into the god of a fountain, and the chorus celebrates Acis’s rebirth.
The precise authorship of the libretto isn’t the only unknown in the work. Scholars aren’t sure exactly where, in what form, or even when Acis and Galatea was first presented.
“It was probably performed at Cannons, and as a concert, more or less, rather than a staged piece,” says Stubbs. “One of the reasons for thinking this is that there are five protagonists, and it’s designed such that the five-part choruses are also singable by those same voices. This was a typical way to economize in the Baroque period. We’ve got a soprano, three tenors, and a bass, and the challenge is that sometimes the choruses are commenting on the actions in which the protagonists are involved. Our stage director, Gilbert Blin, solves this little conundrum in several very creative ways, as you can see if you go to the clip for the show on our website.”
The video also reveals that, like all of the Boston Early Music Festival’s opera productions, Acis and Galatea is performed in period costume and on instruments of the time. Stubbs and fellow musical director Paul O’Dette ensure meticulous attention is paid to detail. “We’ve decided it’s worth the experiment to try and take seriously the theatre, the dress, the music, all of those things, and as much as possible to have them as they were originally. It’s been a very successful approach for us, though also very work-intensive and costly.”
The first production of the Boston Early Music Festival to go on tour, Acis and Galatea is regarded as the finest example of that short-lived form, the English pastoral opera. “Handel and other musicians and poets were intent on establishing an English-language opera,” Stubbs says. “But his own collaborator, John Gay, was to take a satirical point of view about the thing in The Beggar’s Opera , and it never got off the ground. Nothing else has Acis and Galatea’s feeling of freshness and invention. It should have been the first of many, but it proved to be the whole show in itself.”