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Review: Händel’s ‘Alceste’ … one of his best stage works never heard

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March 19 performance by American Classical Orchestra

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That’s right. You read correctly. “Alceste”—an English-language masque by Georg Frideric Händel (1750), not the Italian opera by Christoph Willibald Gluck (1767)—had an outing Wednesday, March 19, 2014. Thomas C. Crawford, founder, music director and conductor of American Classical Orchestra, led a gorgeous performance that included the 14-member ACO Chorus and three soloists. Discovered only recently, it is a treasure trove for voice.

Stage Director Cynthia Edwards gave “Alceste” a semi-staging—appropriate since the work is not an opera, but a masque or semi-opera. John Heginbotham provided magnificent choreography, and Maile Okamura costumed everyone in modern dress or garb hinting of ancient Greece. Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall proved ideal for a production of such intimate proportions.

Tobias Smollett (1712-1771), Scottish poet and later a novelist, surgeon and even a politician, wished to stage an English version of “Alcestis,” a Greek play by Euripides, known in Händel’s time only in French. Confused?

Smollett managed to get Händel to compose the music for the masque; of it, just an hour’s worth remains: the overture, choral numbers and arias from Acts I and IV. The work never reached the stage, and now no one can find Smollett’s edition of the play. Händel, with a propensity for recycling, managed to use the music in three later stage works.

The story of “Alceste” is simple: King Admetus marries Alceste and soon takes ill. Alceste arranges to die instead of him and is boated off to Pluto’s realm of “immortal mortals.” Admetus grieves for her so much that Hercules decides to conquer hell to bring Alceste back. The couple joyously reunite, not in sickness, but in health.

Händel’s music has arias for Calliope, Hercules, and Charon but none for Admetus or Alceste, whose words—meant to be spoken—are part of Smollett’s missing play. Arias and choruses were to be interspersed throughout the play at key points, whether to underline a dramatic situation, provide levity or simply comment on everyone’s grief/happiness.

As Charon, baritone Robert Balonek deftly performed his one aria, “Ye fleeting shades, I come,” in rich smooth voice. Tenor Randall Bills beautifully intoned Hercules’ three arias with slight shakiness at start, only to have warmed into the part by the da capo section of his first aria, “Ye swift minutes as ye fly.” Any initial trouble with the 649 notes for the word “joy” was ousted with steely command by the time of the 838 notes for “fly” in the repeat section.

Soprano Marguerite Krull was Calliope, gowned in sparkling dark blue. Her music contains the score’s most stunning aria, “Gentle Morpheus, son of night.” The naturalness with which she dispatched roulades, drawing no attention to herself yet riveting everyone’s attention on the unfolding drama, gave the impression she has inhabited these arias before. Loveliest moment: four descending trills on the words “balmy dew of sleep.”

The staging and choreography deserve special mention. Since Admetus and Alceste are mute in this masque, John Heginbotham had them eloquently express themselves in beguilingly simple dance, movingly performed by Lindsey Jones and Weaver Rhodes. During the chorus “O bless, ye pow’rs above,” Admetus leaned his head on Alceste’s shoulder while she held him consolingly, and the pair slowly sunk to the floor where they remained utterly still. During the da capo section, he reclined in her cradling grasp. At the end of the next number, “Gentle Morpheus,” Calliope gently closed his eyes. So, simply, expired Admetus.

When Charon came to claim him, he took Admetus under his rich navy satin and velvet cape with a 15-foot train. Alceste’s plea to substitute Admetus in death consisted of wrapping herself under Charon’s cape to his left, and Charon readily releasing Admetus from his right.

Shoes identified the living, so those unshod represented the dead, starting with Charon. Before Alceste could cross the River Styx, she had to remove her sandals, which Hercules eventually returned when rescuing her from hell.

No one is credited with shaping the excellent chorus, who doubled as lookers-on and even dancers. Their unison sounded like a chorus twice its size. Though in constant movement and ever-changing stage configurations, their superb singing often brought welcome shivers.

“Alceste” was the closing work of a fascinating program that began with two orchestral pieces (“Concerto a due cori in B-flat Major,” HWV 332, and “Concerto a due cori in F Major,” HWV 333) and a choral number, the Utrecht “Jubilate,” HWV 279, based on Psalm 100. The chorus’ gorgeous declamation of the final two sections, Glory be to the Father” and “As it was in the beginning” with its final ornate “Amen,” was skin-tingling.

Even the strictly orchestral concerti seemed like a lot of singing, with its various sections lifted from “Messiah” and acquitted by instrumental “voices” arranged in “choirs” that questioned and answered each other. The orchestra rightly received an ovation as enthusiastic as that given any other participant in the evening’s offerings.

With Handelfest, American Classical Orchestra brought to a close its 29th season, begging the question: What delights are in store for season 30?

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