Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo is an earlier, Italian version of the better known Acis and Galatea, with which it shares no music but only the three named characters and the plot. The latter is usually characterised as a masque, while the former is a serenata, a type of secular cantata often composed to celebrate a wedding, in this case that of the Duke of Alvito in Naples in 1708. It is thus one of Handel’s early works and typically features musical items recognisable from other things, particularly the opera Rinaldo.

Federico Maria Sardelli conducts Modo Antiquo
© Thomas Ziegler

For this year's Halle Handel Festival, we were fortunate to enjoy an all-Italian performance, with Modo Antiquo led by Federico Maria Sardelli and three outstanding soloists, countertenor Federico Florio, mezzo Margherita Maria Sala and bass Luigi De Donato. The last two had been heard to advantage two days prior in an unusual (to say the least) Messiah, actually Il Messia, from Florence in 1768, notable for its brevity and the extraordinary sound of the text in Italian – “He was despised” becoming “Tormento atroce”.

Aci... is a substantial work, with richer scoring than most of the Italian cantatas and the later Acis and Galatea (1718), featuring recorder, oboe and trumpets as well as strings and basso continuo. The recorder solos were rendered by Sardelli himself. The demands on the three singers are considerable, requiring a very high and flexible voice for Aci, a mellow alto for Galatea and not just a lower than low voice for Polifemo but one requiring a more than two octave range. The arias are wonderfully varied in their style, content and emotional display.

Federico Fiorio and Margherita Maria Sala
© Thomas Ziegler

The work was performed as written, with no extraneous additions (as are sometimes found), with an interval more or less in the middle, after the first terzetto, “Proverà”. No staging was attempted. It kicks off with a duet for the true lovers, Aci and Galatea, introducing us to the extraordinarily sweet high voice of Fiorio (described as countertenor, but surely sopranista is a better description) and the rich mellow mezzo of Sala. De Donato's Polifemo intruded into their pleasant pastoral ambience with truly terrifying (yet melodious) force with the trumpet accompanied aria “Sibilar l’angui d’Aletto” (which may be remembered from Rinaldo). 

Aci’s aria “Dell’aquila l’artigli” was a lyrical delight, accompanied only by a rippling harpsichord, but Fiorio really dazzled in “Qui l’augel da pianta”. I have never heard a human sound quite so successfully like a canary – in the best possible way – with stunning fioriture. In his dying aria, he purveyed nicely judged lamenting tone. At the other end of the aural and emotional scale, De Donato’s rendition of “Fra l’ombre e gl’orrori” could hardly be bettered, not only mastering the vocal demands, rumbling away resonantly at the lowest note and maintaining bronze tone in the upper reaches, but also conveying the emotional plight of the love-struck ogre.

Luigi De Donato
© Thomas Ziegler

If Sala was not provided with the same opportunities of vocal display, she certainly held her own in the emotional stakes, dropping to an almost sub-vocal but clearly audible level after Aci’s lament, then standing up to the bullying outburst of Polifemo with sturdy conviction. The final terzetto, with a resurrected Aci, admonishing us that whatever the outcome, true love is worth the candle (more or less), was sung with buoyant enthusiasm. The very warm reception induced the players to regale the audience with a sped-up version of that final trio as an encore.