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Acis and Galatea

(Music: George Frideric Handel/Libretto: John Gay)

In 1717, George Frideric Handel was employed as the resident composer at the stately home of James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos in Stanmore, Middlesex, known as Cannons.  While there, and after being influenced by the pastoral English operas by Johann Christoph Pepusch, who was the Music Director at Cannons and Johann Ernst Gaillard, he embarked on writing his first pastoral English dramatic work in the shape of the oratorio or masque Acis and Galatea.

He used libretto that used Metamorphoses by Ovid and the 1717 translation The Story of Acis, Polyphemus and Galatea by John Dryden as a base and was written by John Gay.  Originally the opera was written for three character roles but over a period of time extra libretto was written by for additional characters.  This further libretto is perhaps thought to have been written by Alexander Pope and/or John Hughes.

The following year in the summer months of 1718 the opera was given its debut performance overlooking the gardens of Cannons.  There were five singers who sang the main character roles as well as performing together as the chorus.  This version also had the instrumental music written for no less than seven musicians.  One of the featured characters at this performance was Coridon but his role was removed for some reason and wasn’t included in later performances of this particular version.

From 1719 there were several amateur productions put on for this opera and in 1722 it received its first official publication.

In 1731 the work had a one-performance professional revival and in 1732 John Frederick Lampe and Thomas Arne turned it into a successful theatrical production staged at London Haymarket’s Little Theatre.  George Frediric Handel wasn’t too happy with the advertising for the stage version which Arne and Lampe had used and decided to get his own back by making a substantial adaptation and changing it into a three act serenata which took music from other Italian operas and cantatas and also his 1708 cantata Aci, Galatea f Polifemo.  This new version was performed by the Italian Opera in London on stage in 1732 and found its own success, although it didn’t bring as much acclaim as the Thomas Arne stage production.

Feeling the need to adapt the work again, Handel made some changes in 1732, which remained until 1742 when another adaptation appeared.  He adapted it into a two-act English version in 1739 which provides the base for the one still most used in modern day.

In 1788 Baron Gottfried van Swieten had the work rescored for him by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and in 1828 Mendelssohn made his own arrangement of it.

The composition includes the arias “Love in her eyes sits playing” and “I rage, I melt, I burn” as well as “Amo Tirsi” which Handel adapted from the cantata he had previously written known as Clori, Tersi e Fileno.

This became the most popular work composed by George Frideric Handel during his lifetime, with more than 50 performances given.  It continues to be performed today and has been recorded by Les Arts Florissants, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Philomusica of London and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra & Chorale.

Here is an exceprt of a 2009 performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.