This semi-opera was originally intended to complement Tobias
Smollett's play at Covent Garden. For a variety of reasons -
cost, arguments, lack of suitable singers - it never reached
the stage. Never one to waste his labours, Handel made the best
of things by re-cycling the majority of the music from this
aborted project. It found a home in The Choice of Hercules,
itself performed as an interlude during a revival of the ode
Alexander's Feast. Other numbers appeared in Belshazzar
and Alexander Balus. The original work was forgotten
so we must be grateful for the chance to hear it reconstructed
here for three main singers. In addition conductor Christian
Curnyn chooses to insert two instrumental numbers (the Sinfonia
from Admeto, re di Tessaglia, HWV 22 and the Passacaille
from Radamisto, HWV 12a) to represent the banks of the
Styx and Elysium respectively.
The sound is excellent: roomy, slightly reverberant and "churchy".
The playing is exemplary and indeed often virtuosic - the work
of the two trumpeters in particular, who slither up and down
the scale wonderfully in the "Grande Entrée" (track 2).
The small choir makes a lovely, well-tuned and balanced sound.
Their diction is excellent. Tenor Benjamin Hulett sings in the
best tradition of British Handelian tenors such as the late
Anthony Rolfe Johnson, being fleet and light yet virile of tone.
I am less impressed by "bass-baritone" Andrew Foster-Williams,
not because he is in any sense an inadequate singer but because
in accordance with another less admirable British tradition
he is clearly no kind of bass. He is also hardly a baritone
given his lack of low notes in his one aria for Charon, "Ye
fleeting shades, I come". His voice has the slightly throaty
quality common to a singer working in too low a tessitura and
the low E is a groan. The aria is expertly sung but lacks the
macabre gravitas a true bass could impart to it.
The main vocal attraction is the chance to hear up-and-coming
soprano Lucy Crowe in several extended arias. These embrace
a variety of styles. Although making a brilliant career as a
lyric soprano, she in fact has a warm, mezzo-ish quality to
her timbre. That very attractive, flickering vibrato thankfully
never approaches a tremolo. In the extended aria "Come, Fancy"
she displays a trill, fluent coloratura and there’s a
welcome smile in the voice. Her centre-piece, however, and the
most substantial component of the whole work is the slow, da
capo aria "Gentle Morpheus". This evinces a mode of measured
sublimity familiar to those who know their Theodora,
written at the same time. It too was doomed to ignominy before
its modern revival and proper celebration as one of Handel's
The orchestral interpolations work and complement those such
as the dignified "Frenchified" Symphony preceding Hercules'
triumphant appearance with the rescued Alcestis. I really enjoyed
the vigour and generous phrasing of the authentic band here;
no squawking and no clipped phrases.
Alceste is not quite a masterpiece. For all its incidental
beauties, it has an element of "Handel by the yard" about it.
Even so, it receives as persuasive an advocacy for its many
charms as we are ever likely to get. I commend the musicality
of the players and the two main singers in a nonetheless charming