Timeline of the Opera
The story of Acis and Galatea is derived from Book XIII of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Several composers set the story to music prior to Handel’s first arrangement in 1708.
1686 - Acis et Galathée
Jean-Baptiste Lully composes Acis et Galathée, with a libretto by the French dramatist Jean Galbert de Campistron. The opera includes a cast of ten characters and chorus, and is first performed on September 6, 1686 in the town of Vendôme. On September 17, it is staged in Paris at the Academie Royale de Musique.
1701 - Acis and Galatea
The English composer John Eccles creates Acis and Galatea; libretto written by P.A. Motteux. The libretto includes a subplot concerned with the quarrel of rustic couple Roger and Joan, introduced to “make the piece the more dramatical.” Produced by Drury Lane Theatre, it is popular and revived regularly until 1723. Characters include Acis, Polyphemus, Galatea, Nymph, Roger, Joan, and a chorus of singers, nymphs, and Polyphemus’s attendants.
1702 – Polifemo
Queen Sophia Charlotte of Prussia commissions Giovanni Bononcini to compose Polifemo with an English libretto after a play written by Attilio Ariosti. The “petite bagatelle” (played exclusively on harpsichord) is first performed in the castle of Lietzenburg in Charlottenburg near Berlin, with characters Polifemo, Glauco the Fisherman, Chiaravalle, Nympth Silla, Galatea, and Circe.
George Frideric Handel
1708 – Aci, Galatea e Polifemo
Handel composes the one-act opera Aci, Galatea e Polifemo for the marriage of Duke of Alvito and Beatrice Sanserverino in Naples. The work is completed on June 16, 1708 and performed a month later. It reflects the Italian style with orchestral outbursts, bravura arias, and the character of Polifemo portrayed as a buffoon. Aci was first sung by a soprano, Galatea by a contralto, and Polifemo by the bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi.
1718 – Acis and Galatea
English poets John Gay, John Hughes, and Alexander Pope all contribute to the libretto for Handel’s second arrangement of Acis and Galatea. The libretto is modeled off of Hughes’ Apollo and Daphne (1716), which has a comparable temper and idiom of language, and a similar plot in which the final character is transformed into part of the landscape. Handel spent 1717 and 1718 at the home of James Brydges, Earl of Carnaravon at the Cannons in Northwester London, and likely composed the opera there in May of 1718. The five singers act as both the chorus and principals – Galatea (soprano), Acis (tenor), Damon (tenor), Polyphemus (bass), and Coridon (tenor). The seven musicians include: two violins; two oboes (doubling on recorders); two cellos; and continuo (probably played by Handel himself on harpsichord). Scholars mark this work as the high point of English masque.
1727 – “the Pastorals of Acis and Galatea”
Sections from Handel’s 1718 opera are performed on November 22, 1727 in Bristol as part of a benefit concert at St. Augustine’s Abbey (now Bristol Cathedral) for the cathedral organist Nathanial Priest. This marks the first known appearance of Handel’s music in the English provinces.
1731 – Acis and Galatea
The 1718 arrangement receives its first public performance without Handel’s involvement in London at Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre on March 26, 1731. Called a pastoral, the work is most likely performed with some staging since it is given by a theater company. Acis is performed by Philip Rochetti, Galatea by Mrs. Wright, Polyphemus by Richard Leveridge, Coridon by Jean Laguerre, and Damon by Thomas Salway.
1732 – Acis and Galatea
An English opera company under the direction of Thomas Arne revives the work for performance on May 17 and 19, 1732 in London at the Little Theatre in the Haymarket. This version is not authorized by Handel, and is most likely drawn from a pirated copy of the score. The production is billed as a pastoral opera for four characters (the roles of Damon and Coridon are combined into one character called simply Damon) – Acis (Thomas Mountier), Galatea (Susanna Arne/Mrs. Cibber), Polyphemus (Gustavus Waltz), and Damon (sung here for the first time by a woman – Susanna Mason).
The same year, Handel incorporates material from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo (1708) and his other Italian cantatas and operas to create a setting of Acis and Galatea sung in Italian and English (likely with the same seven part instrumentation as the 1718 arrangement). It is performed on June 10, 13, and 20, 1732 and another four times in December as part of an opera subscription series at the King’s Theatre in London; and is performed again 1733, and revived regularly in 1736 and 1741. The bi-lingual setting is for nine characters (Acis, Galatea, Clori, Polifemo, Sylvio, Filli, Dorinda, Eurilla, and Damon) and chorus (singing in both Italian and English). An advertisement for the performance reads: “A Serenata, call’d Acis and Galatea. Formerly composed by Mr. Handel, and now revis’d by him, with several Additions; and to be perform’d by a great Number of the Best Voices and Instruments.”
1739 – Acis and Galatea
This English setting forms the basis for the version most performed today. Adapted from the 1718 work and transformed into a two act opera, it includes several additions, replacements, changes and cuts to the original score. There are four main characters (the role of Coridon is removed) – Acis (tenor), Galatea (soprano), Polyphemus (bass), and Damon (tenor) – and chorus. Handel performs Acis and Galatea for the last time on January 20 and 27, 1742 in Dublin.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
1788 – Acis und Galatea
Mozart arranges Acis and Galatea for patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an art loving curator of Hofbibliothek, who loves baroque music and seeks to revive the style by commissioning new arrangements of older works to be played at his weekly salons in Vienna. Mozart bases his arrangement on Handel’s 1739 English version, engaging the classical style of the day and adding second violin, woodwind, viola, and bassoon parts, and re-writing some of the oboe solos for clarinet. The work is sung in German and includes the same four vocal roles – Acis, Galatea, Polyphemus, and Damon – joined by a chorus much larger than used by Handel, sometimes with up to fifty singers. The clarity of Mozart's arrangement emphasizes the dynamics and phrasing of the melodic line.