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Notes by Bruce Lamott

The Myth

Atis and Galathea by Pompeo Batoni (1761)

The plot is taken from Book XIII of Metamorphoses of Ovid (43 BCE–17/18 CE), where Galatea recounts her ordeal while Scylla, another beautiful sea nymph (who incidentally will be turned into a rock in our April production of Leclair’s opera, Scylla et Glaucus) combs her hair. She describes the shepherd Acis as “handsome, and having marked his sixteenth birthday, a faint down covered his tender cheeks.” Polyphemus, son of Neptune, is an enormous Cyclops who immodestly describes himself thus: “Luxuriant hair hangs over my face…And do not consider it ugly for my whole body to be bristling with thick prickly hair…I only have one eye in the middle of my forehead, but it is as big as a large shield.”

Galatea says, “I sought [Acis], the Cyclops sought me, endlessly. If you asked, I could not say which was stronger in me, hatred of Cyclops, or love of Acis; both of them were equally strong.” While lying in her lover’s arms, Galatea hears Polyphemus sing a song that commends her assets (“more flowery than the meadows, friskier than a tender kid, more radiant than crystal.” etc.) and liabilities (“wilder than an untamed heifer, harder than an ancient oak, trickier than the sea,” etc.) and attempts to lure her by boasting of his fruit crops, his  flocks, his appearance (see above), and her potential father-in-law, Neptune.

Likening Polyphemus to a raging bull, Galatea tells of his fury upon discovering the lovers, whom he tells it will be the last celebration of their love. The terrified Galatea dives into the sea while Acis pleads for her aid before being completely buried by a rock hurled by the Cyclops. Seeping beneath the stone, the blood of Acis turns into a river—the “metamorphosis” of Ovid’s title—and from a fissure in the rock, Acis emerges as a river-god.

The Work

Aurora Sanseverino by Francesco Solimena

During Handel’s visit to Naples from early May to mid-July in 1708, he is presumed to have written Aci, Galatea, e Polifemo for the wedding of Tolomeo Saverio Gallio, the fifth duke of Alvito, to Beatrice Tocco di Montemiletto, commissioned by the bride’s aunt Donna Aurora Sanseverino. On the final page of his autograph Handel writes “Napoli li 16 di Giugnio. 1708. d’Alvito.” The wedding was three days later. Later performances in 1711 and 1713 indicate that the librettist was Donna Aurora’s private secretary and literary advisor, Nicola Giuvo.

Despite its common origin in Ovid and trio of leading roles, the Italian Aci bears little resemblance to Handel’s more familiar English masque, Acis and Galatea, written ten years later for the Duke of Chandos at Cannons and performed by Philharmonia with choreography by Mark Morris in 2014. The menacing presence of Polifemo looms over the lovers from the start and bears no resemblance to the comically caricatured Polyphemus in the later work. There is no music common to both works, though Handel did produce a hybrid Italian/English version in London in 1732—with eight numbers from Aci, eleven from the Cannons Acis, and eleven other numbers—that he revived five times, but is rarely performed.

Handel was known to tailor his works to suit the abilities of individual singers, but who sang the original Aci is subject to scholarly disagreement, though it is likely that Handel cast a female soprano in the male role of Aci and a mezzo-soprano castrato as Galatea. The extraordinary range and technical demands indicate that Polifemo was written for an exceptional bass, probably Don Antonio Manna, who sang the role in a 1711 performance.

Variously called an extended cantata or serenata–both indicating a multimovement work with few soloists and orchestra, Aci has no overture. This performance uses Handel’s Ouverture to the opera Agrippina, written for Venice the following year. The orchestration is minimal, with two recorders, one oboe, and two trumpets augmenting the strings and continuo group of harpsichord, theorbo, and lute.

The arias for Aci and Galatea are mostly cast in the customary three-part (A-B-A) form known as the da capo aria, most of which require elaborate prolongations of words (coloratura). The texts are brief, usually two sentences or ideas, and the instrumental accompaniments reflect both the emotion or affect of the character as well as “painting” the imagery of the text, such as Aci’s description birds flying from tree to tree, the pulsating of his dying heart, or Galatea’s description of ocean waves. Connecting the arias are declamatory recitatives that serve as dialogue, and accompanied recitatives (accompagnato) that act as soliloquys.

The most sharply drawn character is Polifemo, first introduced with an aria of braggadocio, with wide vocal leaps, orchestral flourishes, and flashy coloratura. His second aria evokes noble restraint as he adopts the manners of a suitor, albeit a threatening one. Polifemo is the most self-aware—as he is in Ovid—when he describes his own rabid and precipitous anger. But, upon losing Galatea, he compares himself to a dying moth, devoid of peace or pleasure, in an astonishing aria that encompasses two-and-a-half octaves (from D below the bass clef to second-space A in the treble clef), eliciting our pity for the hapless monster. His final soliloquoy is a further self-revelation as contemplates his own situation while narrating the last words of Aci.


Coastal Landscape with Acis and Galatea by Claude Lorrain (1657)

Set in an extravagant bathing chamber, two servants, Aci and Galatea, prepare for the arrival of the powerful and entitled lord Polifemo (the intimidating Cyclops) as they scrub the tiled floor and fill his bath. The powerless Galatea is traumatized by Polifemo’s overtly sexual aggression as he bathes him. Galatea escapes Polifemo’s clutches, taking his place in the tub and slits his wrists, slowly dying throughout the remainder of the piece.

Polifemo confronts Aci, who asserts herself as the scene descends into bleak violence culminating in her murder. With the two servants dead at his feet, Polifemo is tormented by Ovid’s poignant image of Aci’s blood transformed into a river which flows into the sea, the two lovers eternally united against patriarchal tyranny.