rsz_acis-and-galatea-1758I first heard Handel’s pastoral opera Acis and Galatea at Battersea Arts Center in the early 1990s with musician actors both singing and playing their instruments on stage as part of the action. It’s a beautifully lyrical piece celebrating the rural life. The story involves the love of the nymph Galatea for the simple shepherd Acis, threatened in the second half by the giant Polyphemus. After a short overture the opera opens with an expansive chorus, based around just four lines:

Oh, the pleasure of the plains
Happy nymphs and happy swains
Harmless, merry, free and gay,
Dance and sport the hours away

Although the tempo is fast this music is relaxed, has a sense of space and takes its time to unfold. A fair bit of it is homophonic (ie the different voices move in step with each other), though counterpoint is used to elaborate at length on key words such as “happy”. Particularly striking is when the opening line is repeated – “Oh, the pleasure of the plains” immediately followed by a lingering “Oh….” spanning three full bars, which has the effect of pausing the music as if a deep breath of fresh, country air is being taken in with great satisfaction. This pastoral idealism was nostalgic even in Handel’s time, which may have been one of the reasons that Acis and Galatea was such as big hit in its day – though there are also suggestions of erotic undercurrents that may have been more evident to Handel’s audiences. Certainly the chorus in this opening number seems to revel in detailing the amorous pleasures of the plains. Today, in a more cynical world, the expression of such uncomplicated happiness in music seems a much harder trick to pull off.

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