CD Review: Händel’s ‘Aci, Galatea e Polifemo’

Raffaele Pe, Giuseppina Bridelli, Andrea Mastroni Shine in Unique Recording of Händel Serenata

By Alan Neilson
(Photo: Gianpaolo Parodi)

In 1708 Händel wrote “Aci, Galatea and Polifemo,” a serenata for three voices, as part of the celebrations to mark the marriage of Beatrice Tocco di Montemiletto and Duke D’Alvito Tolomeo III. Its narrative, taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” relates how the love between the shepherd Aci and the nymph Galatea enrages the cyclops Polifemo, who in a fit of jealous rage kills Aci, causing Galatea to drown herself in the sea so that she can be reunited with her lover. As befitting the occasion, the three protagonists reappear at the end for a final trio to deliver a message to the happy couple: those who love are constant and never without hope.

It was a work which Händel was to revisit throughout his career, with further performances recorded in 1711, 1713, 1718, 1732, 1734, 1736 and 1739, for which he made alterations to the score on each occasion. Today there exists two complete versions of the score, one of the 1708 performance and the other of the 1732 performance. There also exists a manuscript, Mrs Egerton 2953, held in the British Library which details all the variations for the other performances. For this recording, Raffaele Pe, Fabrizio Longo, and Luca Guglielmi have put together a hypothetical reconstruction made from the 1713 Naples version and the 1718 first English performance but fitted to the original Nicola Giuvo’s 1708 libretto.

This led to Aci being cast as an alto rather than a soprano, and Galatea as a soprano instead of an alto, a decision probably taken to accommodate the castrato Senesino and soprano Anna Maria del Pò who performed in the 1713 Naples version, and all the arias have been transposed accordingly. Polifemo’s role has been significantly altered with new arias and long accompanied recitatives. The instrumentation also differs from the 1708 Naples premier, trumpets have been deleted and an extended role has been accorded to the woodwind.

Three Quality Artists

This recording brings together three quality soloists, the countertenor Raffaele Pe as Aci, mezzo-soprano Giuseppina Bridelli as Galatea and the bass Andrea Mastroni as Polifemo. They are accompanied by the La Lira di Orfeo ensemble under the direction of Luca Guglielmi.

In 2018, Pe released his first solo CD “Giulio Cesare, A Baroque Hero” in which he took the opportunity to showcase his interpretative and vocal skills, for which he received widespread acclaim. In this, his latest recording, we find a different singer, one who has developed an assured maturity, now more confident and secure in his presentation. His characterization of Aci is finely crafted, he is an ardent, bold and earnest lover, but there is never a sense of overstatement; ornamentations are used to promote Aci’s emotions rather than simply to demonstrate his own singing talents.

The role has four arias, each requiring the singer to emote a different affect, two of which stand out for the depth and sensitivity Pe was able to bring to his renditions. In “Verso già l’alma col sangue” Aci lies dying, and reflects on the pitiless cruelty that has brought his life to an end. For large stretches Pe allows a dark undercurrent to color his voice, upon which his brighter countertenor moves easily, creating a beautiful chiaroscuro quality, which captures the feeling of dread surrounding the scene. In other passages, his slow gentle ornamentations, along with his ability to stretch the vowel sounds, subtly inflected with a heavy sadness, conjure up the impression of a life ebbing away.

In the aria “Dell’aquila l’artigli” Aci defiantly faces Polifemo, in which he displays his resolve to defend Galatea to the point of death. To a harpsichord accompaniment, Pe gives voice to his courage and bravery, in which he uses his coloratura, accented phrasing and the sharp tone of his voice as he pushes forcefully upwards to successfully portray Aci’s fierce determination. The rendition was all the more effective owing to the neutral sound of the harpsichord.

Bridelli’s Galatea is a feisty character, she is loving, defiant, courageous and single-minded, certainly no shrinking violet. She allows her emotions to pour forth, often at the expense of a certain degree of elegance, but she is always true to the text. When Polifemo opens his heart to her, she responds in a recitative calling him “a miserable prize of a blind God,” her voice cold, yet defiant, even unfeeling, which she then follows up with the aria “Benchè tuoni e l’etra avvampi,” which she uses to push home her determination to resist him. In a passionate rendition in which she coats her voice with a defiant tone, Bridelli uses her vocal agility to unleash a series of coloratura displays to emphasize her emotional resistance.

Having thrown herself into the waves, we find Galatea in a very different mood as she tells Aci in her aria “Se m’ami, o caro” to leave her, so she can grieve alone. Bridelli’s well-crafted rendition is full of emotional depth, in which her suffering is brought to the fore through her beautifully developed, nuanced phrasing, sensitively inflected with emotional coloring, and in which her sighs can be clearly heard in her elongated lines, and her weeping heard in her staccato coloratura.

One of the features of this version is that the role of Polifemo is turned into a more humane, sympathetic character, one with whom it is easy to identify, despite his murderous nature, for he sincerely loves Galatea and suffers for the fact. Mastroni’s portrayal adds to the impression as his voice possesses an engaging sincerity and nobility. His opening aria “Affanno tiranno” is an emotionally powerful statement which highlights Polifemo’s sensitive nature, and his awareness of the torment and pain love can bring.

Perhaps the finest aria on the disk is “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori” in which Polifemo bemoans his fate at losing Galatea in what is a fascinating rendition. Mastroni uses the full range of his voice to detail his pain, moving with ease from a low D, in which his dark toned voice rumbles among its subterranean depths, to an A in the treble clef, where his acute pain can almost be physically felt.

Mastroni also wonderfully captures Polifemo’s humanity in his final recitative in which he laments his fate, realizing that even in killing Aci he has achieved nothing. His phrasing is clear, balanced, yet so full of pain. Such is the emotional strength of his singing, it is impossible not to sympathize with him.

Strong Ensemble Work

There are a number of ensemble pieces which gave rise to interesting sonorities and dramatic confrontations and contrasts, of which two terzetti stand out. In the brief terzetto “Poverà lo sdegno mio” Polifemo rages against his rejection by Galatea, who remains defiant while Aci tries to calm her. Their voices harmonize in different combinations, creating an array of pleasing textures, while each successfully expressing their own different emotions. The terzetto “Delfin vivrà sul monte” produces a very different affect in which Aci and Galatea are united, sharing an emotional harmonious moment, while an angry Polifemo weaves his way between them, which give rise to further pleasing vocal sonorities.

The musical director Luca Guglielmi produces an excellent performance from the La Lira di Orfeo ensemble, which engages sensitively with the dramatic picture and the emotional portraits of the characters. Their playing is refined and elegant, and possesses a pleasing balance, one that is alive to the text’s nuances and underlying structural thrust.

Originally, this project was conceived for a performance at Piacenza’s Teatro Municipale, but unfortunately had to be cancelled owing to measures aimed at curbing the spread of COVID, although it was streamed, albeit without an audience. Its focus on the sufferings associated with being in love is clearly transmitted by all three singers in this recording. However, the production also attempted to explore how the myth was an attempt to explain the natural environment and Man’s attempt to alter it. Of course, this is beyond the scope of an audio recording, but the accompanying booklet includes an interesting article, written by Pe, about the ideas behind the production.

Although this is a recording of a version of Händel’s serenata which may never have taken place, and may upset some Händel purists, it does remain a possibility. Moreover, it is a disk which has merit in its own right, not least for the performances of the three soloists who convincingly brought the characters to life, and conveyed their emotions so powerfully.


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