George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Alceste - Incidental music HWV 45 (1749/50)
Lucy Crowe (soprano); Benjamin Hulett (tenor); Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
Early Opera Company Chorus and Orchestra/Christian Curnyn
rec. 7-8 November 2011, St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London. DDD

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 masterpieces.
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 work.  

Ralph Moore 

Not quite a masterpiece but charming nonetheless.