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Handel: Alceste [CD]

Christian Curnyn Audio CD
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Product Description

BBC Review

After a century of neglect, many of Handel’s once sensationally popular operas are now an established part of the operatic mainstream. But here is something of a rarity: the incomplete ‘incidental music’ for Alceste.

Conceived as a hugely lavish production, it was possibly Alceste’s overreaching ambition that led to its downfall. A team of top talent was assembled for its creation: Scottish-born playwright Tobias Smollett, impresario John Rich, celebrated set-designer Giovanni Servandoni, Handel's librettist Thomas Morell and, of course, the towering genius composer of the opera world himself. Intended for performance at Covent Garden, the production collapsed soon after rehearsals had begun in 1749. Quite why remains a mystery – but it seems likely that the involvement of too many temperamental cooks spoilt the proverbial broth.

Smollett's play disappeared and remains lost; but, fortunately, Handel's music survives. Indeed, much of it will be familiar to anyone acquainted with the subsequent works into which Handel pragmatically recycled its material – The Choice of Hercules, Belshazzar and Alexander Balus. This new Chandos release offers a welcome chance to appreciate the music of Alceste in its original, never realised, guise.

The classical drama tells of Alceste's self-sacrifice to save her dying husband, King Admetus, and of Hercules' journey to Hades to bring Alceste back to the world of the living. Smollett assigned the principal roles to actors; Handel's arias are sung by secondary characters. Pick of the bunch is the ravishing ‘Gentle Morpheus, son of night’, in which Calliope (goddess of poetry) consoles Admetus, sung with affecting tenderness here by Lucy Crowe to sumptuously lilting accompaniment from the Early Opera Company orchestra under conductor Christian Curnyn.

Occasionally he doesn't get the mood quite right – the wedding celebration chorus ‘O bless, ye pow'rs above’ needs greater rhythmic spring. But, generally, Curnyn's lively and sensitive approach makes a strong case for this little-known score.

--Noel Gardner

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In sum, this is gloriously beguiling music which demands to be more widely enjoyed. --Gramophone,June'12

In 1749, the year of the Music for the Royal Fireworks, Susanna and Solomon, Handel accepted a commission from John Rich, the impresario and producer of The Beggar's Opera, to supply incidental music for a tragedy, based on Euripides, by Tobias Smollett. Alceste, he wrote to a friend, ...will (without fail) be acted at Covent Garden next Season. He was counting his chickens though Handel completed the score early the following year, while working on his masterpiece, Theodora, the play was never performed. Characteristically, the composer (never one to waste a good tune) plundered Alceste for the short secular cantata The Choice of Hercules. The original score runs to an overture and 20 numbers, but Curnyn interpolates a passacaglia from Radamisto (1720) and a sinfonia from Admeto (1726), an Italian opera loosely based on the same subject as Smollett's play. It makes for an agreeable sequence of music with one show stopper, Calliope s Gentle Morpheus, which is the highlight here, as sung by Lucy Crowe, warmer and more sensual than the classic account by Emma Kirkby on Decca. With Benjamin Hulett s mellifluous tenor taking the lion s share of the solos, the bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams as a bluff Charon, with his aria in the style of Polyphemus (from Acis and Galatea), and Curnyn's choral and orchestral forces on sparkling form, the disc offers more than an hour of Handelian delight. CD OF THE WEEK --Sunday Times, 13/05/12

Alceste enchants with fleet strings and polished Soloists Performance ***** Recording ***** BBC MUSIC OPERA CHOICE --BBC Music Magazine, Jul'12

First rate Chandos sound and presentation complete an hour of hedonistic Handelian delight. --Gramophone, Aug'12

Handel's Alceste is an unusual piece with a vexed history. It consists of the incidental music Handel's only work in the genre for a version of Euripides' Alcestis by Tobias Smollett, though the texts for the songs were more likely to be the work of Thomas Morell, the librettist of Theodora. The project was abandoned, probably for financial reasons, before it reached the stage. Smollett's play was subsequently lost, and all that remains is a set of vocal and orchestral numbers that don't really hang together as a sequence, however ravishing they may be individually. Christian Curnyn and his Early Opera Company do wonderful things with them, though. There's a real sense of ceremonial majesty in the choruses, and the solo singing is exceptionally fine. Benjamin Hulett tackles his exacting coloratura numbers with great elegance, while Andrew Foster-Williams has fun as Charon, a character added by Smollett, whose adaptation was clearly very free. Best of all, though, is Lucy Crowe, who gets to sing Gentle Morpheus, Son of Night, one of the most beautiful things in Handel's entire output. **** --Guardian, 12/07/12

First rate Chandos sound and presentation complete an hour of hedonistic Handelian delight. --Gramophone, Aug'12

Product Description

Lucy Crowe, soprano - Benjamin Hulett, ténor - Andrew Foster-Williams, baryton-basse - Early Opera Company - Christian Curnyn, direction
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