I still find it slightly astonishing that entire operas can be posted on YouTube. But there they are, and as far as I can tell they are there with the blessing of the producers. If they objected YouTube would have taken them down straight away. I suppose the advertising revenue that they generate is a bonus, though I can’t imagine it amounts to very much. Still the economics of opera has never made any more sense than the plots. But it does mean that what used to be the ultimate in elitist entertainment is now available for anyone. In the comfort of their own home. Or you can even watch opera on your phone while wandering about. I wonder if this ready supply will entice people who might not otherwise have considered it to give it a go? I’d like to think so.
Acis and Galatea – A Good First Opera
So if you want to get into opera, where do you start? I’m by no means an expert but I think you could do a lot worse than to try Handel’s Acis and Galitea, which is available in the splendid production by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. This is a very early opera, and is also very early in Handel’s career. He had arrived in London from Italy at the age of 27 with a reputation amongst musical circles but unknown to the general public. Acis and Galatea was his first work for the English stage. He obviously wanted it to be a success because the music is highly commercial and accessible. He achieved his aim. It was a great success and established him as a bankable proposition. I think this work can be equally considered as a chapter in the development of opera and as one of the foundations of the tradition of musicals in London which continues to this day.
Acis and Galatea-the Plot
The plot, as well as the music, is fairly straight forward. It is a mythological story that appears in the writing of Ovid in the (very) late Roman republic. It doesn’t appear anywhere else so may well have been Ovid’s own invention. But the classical heritage is almost incidental, just giving it a bit of colour and respectability.
It is just a simple boy meets nymph and falls in love story. Acis is a simple shepherd. His rustic nature is indicated by wearing a scruffy jumper, which sounds corny but works quite well. He is in love with the nymph Galatea, who as a semi-divine water spirit would normally be out of his league. In original versions his amorous ambitions were the source of some humorous numbers. Humour doesn’t age well and these were later dropped. This makes it a fairly short opera in its present incarnation.
I have a feeling that the missing bits were probably a bit of background on the development of the relationship between the lovers, because we get a song where one of his friends warns of the difficulties a mortal like Acis might experience pursuing a magical creature. We don’t get any of those difficulties examined. It I am right then the formula would have been even more of a sort of proto-RomCom than it already is. As it is, Galatea falls straight into the arms of Acis and we see them sleeping together at only about 40 minutes in.
So Acis has hit it lucky early on, but needless to say the sailing isn’t going to remain smooth. He has a rival for the attentions of Galatea in the form of Polythemus. This is presumably the same Polythemus who appears in the Odyssey as the gigantic cyclops outwitted by Odysseus. There is no indication in Acis and Galatea that Polythemus has only one eye – a curious omission. The authors of the libretto, including Alexander Pope and John Gay, were hardly casual about their craft and would not have missed this detail in error. I have a feeling that the original story was not so much the inspiration as a useful pretext. By alluding to something ancient they could get away with being a sight more explicit than if they had used something contemporary.
Acis and Polythemus – Love Rivals
Polythemus is dismayed to discover that Galatea basically just isn’t into him. His jealousy devours him and he kills Acis. Galatea is distraught and sings a heart breaking aria. (Really heart breaking – it has had me in tears.) She is saved from despair by the chorus that reminds her of her divine powers. She transforms the dead Acis into a free flowing crystal fountain thus promoting him to the status of a god. The opera ends with a joyful again Galatea dancing with the spirit of Acis in his new transformed state, while the chorus urges her on:
Galatea, dry thy tears,
Acis now a god appears!
See how he rears him from his bed,
See the wreath that binds his head.
Hail! thou gentle murm’ring stream,
Shepherds’ pleasure, muses’ theme!
Through the plains still joy to rove,
Murm’ring still thy gentle love.
It is a charming ending. It is also a happy ending. There were plenty of twists that could have finished it off in a more ambiguous way, and none of the collaborators would be described as being sentimental or corny. But they chose to end it on a simple note, and it fits well enough. It has remained a popular piece ever since it was first performed. We all like to go to bed with a smile on our faces.
Acis and Galatea – Metaphor for destruction of rural lifestyle
But I think there is a melancholy aspect to it as well. Despite its classical trappings, this is a pastoral rather than a mythological story. By selecting a nymph as his lover, the shepherd Acis was keeping things a bit classier than they might have been. But at root this is a simple story about two guys fighting over a girl. The opening number talks about the pleasures of the plain where happiness is defined by uninhibited liaisons with the opposite sex. It is an uncomplicated rural environment where love is a public business discussed freely and openly.
But it is also nostalgic. Outside London, where Acis and Galatea played to full houses, the countryside was undergoing the most radical transformation since the arrival of agriculture itself. It was almost in the middle of the process of enclosing the commons, where land was taken out of collective ownership and placed in the hands of members of the elite. Farming was becoming a business run for gain rather than subsistence. The rural landscape was being depopulated, tidied up and made profitable. Families were uprooted and forced to move into the expanding towns or across the seas to the colonies.
Whether this was a good thing or a bad one in the long run can be debated. There is no doubt that at the time it was a disaster for the section of the rural population that relied on common grazing rights and growing a significant proportion of their own food. They could no longer be self sufficient and were reduced to the status of day labourers. This made them vulnerable to the cycle of trade and would probably have killed enough of them. The laws brought in to defend property were brutal. There were plenty of Galateas weeping over their Acis for real.
And even if the results have proved to be benign in the long run the loss of the common land led to the loss of the rural culture celebrated in Acis and Galatea. It may have been one that was materially poor, but it had a rich social component. Folk songs vanished. Relaxed attitudes to sex went too. Basically a whole culture was destroyed and can never now be revived. The plaintive tone of Acis and Galatea might have been a lot more resonant than we realise looking back. Acis lived on only in a way that was completely different to the one he started out as. He might have ended up better off, but he didn’t chose it.
There is a full account of the story of Acis and Galatea on the Mythology Guide
And if you are interested in the music, the Telegraph reviewed it very well.