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A Stone's Throw

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W. Dean and J. M. Knapp,
Handel's Operas: 1704-1726

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Handel, Acis and Galatea (1718 version), English Baroque Soloists, J. E. Gardiner

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Handel, Acis and Galatea (1739 version), Les Arts Florissants,
W. Christie
For research relating to the operas of Handel, the place to start is the magisterial study of the works by Winton Dean (and, in the first volume, John Merrill Knapp), which was reprinted in 2009 in honor of the Handel anniversary year. The composer's Acis and Galatea (review of the Opera Lafayette performance of the work coming tomorrow) is not discussed in depth in this study because it is not, properly speaking, an opera. The authors do consider it briefly, however, as an example of the sort of hybrid work that interested Handel, drawing on the English masque tradition and setting words by the most brilliant poets of the day. In his libretto, John Gay adapted the story, quite faithfully for the most part, from a story in the thirteenth book of Ovid's Metamorphoses. The scholar Ellen T. Harris, in her fascinating book Handel as Orpheus: voice and desire in the chamber cantatas, makes a convincing case that Gay worked directly from the English translation of Ovid by Dryden and his collaborators, by comparing the libretto to parallel sections of Dryden's Book the Thirteenth.

Handel's score has all the musical merit of the Italian operas that would make his name in England. Even with such a small musical ensemble -- 2 oboes (doubling on recorders and flauto piccolo), 2 violins, and basso continuo -- Handel created gorgeous music, of varied color and texture. In the opening number of the second part, Wretched lovers, a slow, arching contrapuntal theme is passed through all the vocal and instrumental parts, continuing into the fast section where it is enlivened by a more raucous counter-subject ("Behold the monster Polypheme"). The trio of Galatea, Acis, and Polyphemus is one of Handel's most pleasing ensemble pieces, and Galatea's final air, Heart, the seat of soft delight, is only one of the role's very pleasing pieces. As Acis sings his dying recitative, Handel has the harpsichord go silent, leaving just strings in pianissimo, followed by similar sections for unaccompanied voices in the choral response to Acis's death.

Scholar Dianne Dugaw, in her book "Deep play": John Gay and the invention of modernity, singles out Acis and Galatea as an example of how John Gay's literary guidance was just as important as Handel's music, particularly in her discussion of the comic nature of Polyphemus, which she sees as being primarily the idea of Gay, resisted by Handel a bit as seen in his revisions to the work in the 1730s. It is this sort of characteristic that inspired the following assessment by Dean and Knapp:
If the masques of 1715-17 achieved nothing towards supplanting Italian opera, they did have one important progeny. Handel's Acis and Galatea ... was directly modelled on them, both in text and music. Had [it] been written for the London theater rather than a nobleman's private entertainment, subsequent events might have taken a different course. (pp. 166-67)

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