The Composer

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was a German-British Baroque composer well known for his operas, oratorios, anthems, concerti grossi, and organ concertos. Handel received his training in Halle and worked as a composer in Hamburg and Italy before settling in London in 1712, where he spent the bulk of his career and became a British subject in 1727. He was strongly influenced both by the middle-German polyphonic choral tradition and by composers of the Italian Baroque. In turn, Handel’s music forms one of the peaks of the “high baroque” style, bringing Italian opera to its highest development, creating the genres of English oratorio and organ concerto, and introducing a new style into English church music. He is consistently recognized as one of the greatest composers of his age.

Handel started three commercial opera companies to supply the English nobility with Italian opera. In 1737, he had a physical breakdown, changed direction creatively, and addressed the middle class and made a transition to English choral works. After his success with Messiah (1742), he never composed an Italian opera again. His orchestral Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks remain among his most popular works. One of his four coronation anthems, Zadok the Priest, has been performed at every British coronation since 1727. Almost blind, he died in 1759, a respected and rich man, and was given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey.

Handel’s compositions include 42 operas, 25 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, trios and duets, numerous arias, odes and serenatas, solo and trio sonatas, 18 concerti grossi, and 12 organ concertos. His most famous work, the oratorio Messiah with its “Hallelujah” chorus, is among the most popular works in choral music.

The musicologist Winton Dean wrote that “Handel was not only a great composer; he was a dramatic genius of the first order.” There has been a huge resurgence in performances of Handel operas during the past 40 years – operas such as Giulio Cesare, Rinaldo, Semele, Rodelinda, Alcina, Agrippina, Tamerlano, Acis and Galatea, Partenope, Ariodante, Orlando, and Xerxes are now produced regularly by major opera companies throughout the world. Almost all his operas have been commercially recorded (some several times over) and are available on DVD.

The Opera

A opera in one act for 3 singers and chamber orchestra, with a running time of 90 minutes, first performed in 1708. It is a very compressed piece, full of virtuosic arias, duets, and trios – a great vocal showcase for each singer. Polyphemus’ dramatic entrance aria, “Sibilar gli angui d’Aletto” is one of Handel’s most famous and beloved arias. As with many of his Italian compositions, Handel lifted whole arias from this opera for use in later operas – Agrippina (1709), Rinaldo (1711), Il pastor fido (1712), Teseo (1713), Poro (1733), and Atalanta (1736).

The Libretto

The libretto is by Nicola Giuvo, based on the myth from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a significant source of inspiration to Renaissance painters, poets and musicians alike. Ovid’s emphasis on magical transformations – particularly those of one party amongst would-be lovers – appealed especially to creators of opera, where both the passion of love (often unrequited) and the spectacle of transformation created opportunities for musical and scenic display. Thus Dafne, the tale of Apollo’s pursuit of the nymph and his transformation of her into a tree when she continues to reject his advances, is today considered to be the first opera, written in 1598 by Jacopo Peri.

The story of Orpheus and Eurydice was the next (where metamorphoses are effected on multiple levels by Orpheus’s song, which in particular recalls Eurydice fleeing from death to life); it was set by Peri as Euridice in 1600 and, most famously, by Monteverdi as L’Orfeo in 1607.

The tale of Acis, Galatea and Polyphemus was another Ovidian piece – seemingly invented by him – that had been set several times before Handel came to it. Given his interest in French opera (Handel’s overtures, most notably, show French influence), Handel may have known Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1686 Acis et Galatée. Of more recent vintage was John Eccles and P. A. Motteux’s Acis and Galatea (1701), which was written for the English spoken-drama theatre, Drury Lane, and revived regularly into the 1720s; to cater to English popular tastes and ‘make the piece the more dramatical’, it included a quarrelling peasant couple, Roger and Joan. This was unlikely to have been a model for Handel, however; a more likely prompt for his initial interest in the story was Giovanni Bononcini’s one-act work, Polifemo, as it was written and performed in 1703, during Handel’s sojourn in Italy.

Handel was quite taken with this story and set it to music on three separate occasions. His first setting of the tale, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, was undertaken when he visited Naples in June 1708, probably as a commission from the Duchess of Laurenzano for the wedding of her niece.

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