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.
CHANDOS CHACONNE CHAN 0788 [63:16]
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
Not quite a masterpiece but charming nonetheless.