Sunday, March 02, 2014

Like a crystal flood

The story of Acis and Galatea is rooted in the landscape of Sicily.  When the sea-nymph sees her lover killed by a great rock, thrown by the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus, she transforms his blood into the river Acis. Polyphemus tries to lure Galatea away from the sea with descriptions of life on the island.  'Here there are bays, and here slender cypresses, / Here is sombre ivy, and here the vine's sweet fruit / Here there is ice-cold water which dense-wooded Etna / Sends from its snows - a drink fit for the gods.'  These lines are given him by Theocritus in Idyll 11 (trans Anthony Verity), whilst in Virgil's ninth Eclogue the Cyclops tells her 'Coloured spring is here.  The river banks are spangled / with flowers of many hues.  Above my grotto a silvery / Poplar sways, and vines cast a shifting lace of shadow.' (trans. C. Day Lewis).

Nicholas Poussin, Landscape with Polyphemus, 1648

Landscape imagery is used in a different way in Ovid's Metamorphoses, where Polyphemus climbs to the apex of a hill on a spur jutting out into the sea and sings in praise of Galatea, listing her qualities in terms of the beauties of nature.  She is

whiter than the snowy columbine
a sweeter flower than any in the meadows 
taller and more stately than alder
more radiant than crystal
friskier than a tender kid
smoother than shells polished by the sea
more welcome than sun in winter or summer shade
more choice than apples
lovelier to see than the tall plane trees
more sparkling than ice
sweeter than ripe grapes
softer than swansdown or creamy cheese
fairer than a watered garden

But also

wilder than an untamed heifer
harder than an ancient oak
more treacherous than the sea
tougher than willow-twigs or white vine branches
as immovable as the rocks
more turbulent than a river
vainer than the much-praised peacock
fiercer than fire
harsher than harrows
more truculent than a pregnant bear
deafer than the waters
crueler than a trodden snake

What Polyphemus most regrets however, is her ability to outrun him, for she is 'swifter than the deer, driven by loud barking, swifter even than the winds, and the passing breeze'.

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Acis and Galatea, 1657

As you can see above, Claude and Poussin both based beautiful paintings on the myth, one a view looking out to sea, the other looking back into the island's rocky interior.  Acis and Galatea are small figures in the foreground and Polyphemus is barely distinguishable from the landscape.  In Poussin's painting his back merges into the rocks where he sits, turned away from the lovers, playing his flute.  In Claude's, the Cyclops is barely visible - you can just glimpse him (right) sadly watching from the wooded slope, his view of the lovers obscured by the sheet they have put up to afford them some privacy.  Of course not all artists put emphasis on the landscape and Poussin himself did a version with additional cherubs and embracing lovers in which Polyphemus looks on like the sad guy at a particularly riotous party.

It was at a hunting party that Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Acis et Galatée saw its first performance in 1686.  Elaborate artificial sets of the kind he had previously specialised in were no longer an option now that he was out of favour with Louis XIV (who had become increasingly religious and less tolerant of Lully's openly homosexual lifestyle).  It is tempting to imagine this being successfully performed with very little scenery, perhaps even outside amid 'natural' scenery.  After Lully there are a few more steps in the operatic story before we get to Handel's Acis and Galatea.  There was an English version by John Eccles and P.A. Motteux in 1701, which depressingly included 'a subplot concerned with the quarrel of rustic couple Roger and Joan, introduced to “make the piece the more dramatical.”'  Then came Giovanni Bononcini's Polyfemo (1702) and an Italian version by the young Handel himself, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708).  Ten years later Handel had moved to England and was employed by James Brydges, 9th Baron Chandos, the 'Apollo of the Arts', and it was for him that Acis and Galatea, was composed, with a libretto by John Gay (aided by two more poets, John Hughes and Alexander Pope).

Acis and Galatea was first performed on a summer's day at Cannons, the house Brydges was then still building at vast expense (and which would be razed to the ground in 1747 when the family fortune gave out).   Pleasingly this does seem to have taken place in the open air, although The Grove Book of Operas is a bit sniffy about this 'local tradition', remarking that the discovery of piping to supply an old fountain "might fancifully be invoked as support".  If true, the audience would have been within earshot of the water features designed by John Theophilus Deaguliers, another remarkable individual patronised by Brydges, who combined the roles of local priest and hydraulic engineer.  Perhaps the sound of water would have been a constant reminder of Galatea, the sea nymph loved by both Acis and Polyphemus. At the end of the opera, as you can hear in the clip embedded below, when Galatea transforms Acis into a river, she sings
Heart, the seat of soft delight,
Be thou now a fountain bright!
Purple be no more thy blood,
Glide thou like a crystal flood.
Rock, thy hollow womb disclose!
The bubbling fountain, lo! it flows;
Through the plains he joys to rove,
Murm'ring still his gentle love.

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