Handel didn't write much music for the English non-operatic
theatre. There are a few songs, but Alceste is his only
example of full-scale incidental music for a play. Handel does
not seem to have been the instigator of the project and one
of his 18th century biographers says that he undertook
it to discharge a debt to John Rich, the owner and manager of
the Covent Garden Theatre.
However it came about, the project does seem to have been Rich's
idea. There we have it: a play by Tobias Smollett, music by
Handel, a lavish production featuring actors and singers, chorus,
dancers and big orchestra with opulent scenery. That it didn't
happen might have been due to cost or because of Smollett's
disputatious nature. We are not sure.
So substantial is Handel's score (some 60 minutes of music)
that the project does rather resemble one of the semi-operas
that Purcell worked on. Like semi-opera only the minor characters
sing. So what we have is essentially a musical side-view of
the Alceste story.
With the failure of the production we have lost Smollett’s
play so have to make assumptions about the plot. Not that this
really matters when listening to Handel’s music. The lyrics
that Handel set were not by Smollett, but almost certainly by
Thomas Morrell. The music from Alceste wasn’t discarded;
Handel re-used it. Substantial amounts went into The Choice
of Hercules (including an earlier version of Gentle Morpheus,
a song Handel dropped from Alceste), Alexander’s
Feast, Belshazzar’s Feast and Alexander
On this new disc Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company
give the complete music along with the sinfonia to Admeto
- Handel's Italian opera on the Alceste story. We are also treated
to the passacaille from Radamisto.
The set opens with the Ouverture and Grand Entrée
which Curnyn and his orchestra render with lively precision.
The first few numbers, solos and choruses are pleasant enough.
Tenor Benjamin Hulett's solo Ye swift minutes fly is
the first striking number, with fioriture finely rendered by
Hulett. The soprano solo, Gentle Morpheus is a substantial
and large-scale number. It is beautifully and caressingly sung
by Lucy Crowe. In the play this lovely music is sung by the
After a deft rendering of the sinfonia from Admeto, the
scene changes to the Styx and the solo for Charon. It’s
the only bass solo in the piece. Ye fleeting shades is
an infectiously perky little piece, nicely sung here by Andrew
Foster-Williams. This Charon is clearly happy in his work.
Lucy Crowe returns for one more solo, Come fancy, a nicely
perky piece for Calliope. It’s perhaps not quite as ravishing
as the first solo, but still charming.
Hulett has three major solos in total which he performs with
lyrical charm. Musically, none are quite as memorable as the
soprano and bass arias, but he impresses with his easy mellifluous
voice, lovely sense of line and nice crisp ornamentation.
The orchestra and chorus of the Early Opera Company are on good
form and Curnyn keeps the piece flowing. This ensures that there
are no longueurs. The chorus impress with their brilliant yet
keenly defined delivery and these qualities are also to be found
in the orchestra.
The CD booklet contains a highly informative note by David Vickers,
artist biographies and full texts.
Though Curnyn has recorded the music complete, it is a pity
that we couldn’t have heard Handel’s first, and
rather different, version of Gentle Morpheus along with
Thetis bids me hither fly which was dropped from the
score entirely. There would have been enough space on the disc.
The music to Alceste was recorded by Christopher Hogwood
and the Academy of Ancient Music with Emma Kirkby, Paul Elliott
and David Thomas. Anyone who has this set may not feel the need
to replace it but if you haven't yet made the acquaintance of
Handel's personable score, then this is the time to do so and
this is the recording to go for.
See also review by Ralph