NZ Opera

New Zealand Opera blog

Acis & Galatea: a conductor's view


For Erin Helyard who will conduct Acis & Galatea for New Zealand Opera in Canterbury, the composer, Handel, occupies a special place in his heart.

“Handel was beloved by the Italians and one of the few composers to have so diligently studied the craft of the Italians in their own cities. And it is their characteristic fondness for dramatic effects that is readily apparent in Acis & Galatea.

“I was first aware of the work as a teenager with Trevor Pinnock’s beautiful recording of the Mozart version. It was only later that I heard Handel’s original and compared the two versions in score, being fascinated by Mozart’s alterations to Handel’s score. How exciting to be able to perform the work in the open air, as it was almost certainly first done. I suspect that Handel’s original orchestration, with its carefully delineated treble and bass (two oboes, two violins and bass - without violas) is designed perfectly for such an environment.“

A talented soloist as well as a versatile conductor, Erin Helyard is currently Lecturer in Historical Performance Practice at the New Zealand School of Music. Having graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music he then studied harpsichord and fortepiano performance and pursued his passion for the music and culture of the eighteenth century and the ideals of the Enlightenment with a PhD in musicology.

Acis & Galatea was Handel’s first dramatic work in English, and dates from the spring and summer of 1718, when the 33 year old composer was resident at Cannons, the Middlesex seat of James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon. Brydges had just completed construction of a new mansion and who better to provide appropriate music to adorn it than the young Handel, glowing from successes in London.

“Handel provided the Earl with church music, his first English oratorio (Esther) and Acis & Galatea, which Handel himself described in a letter as a ‘little opera’. The original Cannons version was probably performed in the open air in terraces surrounding the house and overlooking the garden. The final scene, in which the murdered Acis is transformed into a fountain by the demi-goddess Galatea, might indeed have been designed for performance around the Earl’s newly completed fountain.

“Acis & Galatea belongs to the genre of pastoral opera, originally a courtly entertainment that depicted the Arcadian simplicity of rural life. In the early eighteenth century, pastoral opera sung in English found favour in the theatres of Drury Lane, then vying for a public captivated by the splendours of Italian opera. Handel would have heard pastoral operas by Johann Pepusch and others but as the British musicologist Stanley Sadie noted, Acis & Galatea ‘in inspiration, conception and execution it remains wholly individual’.

Acis & Galatea was Handel’s first full-scale work set to an English language text, and he fits this ‘foreign’ language to his tuneful music remarkably well. There are very few recitative passages as the work is constructed mainly of a continuous series of arias. Much of the work’s power comes from Handel’s adroit and controlled mixture of tone, says Erin. From the elegiac outpourings of the two lovers, the celebration of Arcadian bliss, the semi-comic scenes with Polyphemus, to the great power and pathos of truly tragic final scenes, Handel imbued the genre with a dramatic force that had hitherto only been found in Italian opera.

“But Italian opera did not favour the mixing of voices beyond the occasional final act duo. In Acis & Galatea, Handel set choruses with formidable ingenuity and skill, from the glorious Act 1 numbers where the nymphs and shepherds take delight in “the pleasure of the plains”, to the contrapuntal masterpiece of Act 2, where the chorus warns the lovers of the approach of the murderous giant Polyphemus. Acis & Galatea is one of Handel’s few works to have enjoyed a sustained popularity since its premiere. Its composition heralded a new phase in Handel’s career that would ultimately lead to the great English oratorios of the 1730s and beyond.