Opera, ode, oratorio. Handel had tried his hand at all three forms of sung drama with varying degrees of success since arriving on English shores in the autumn of 1710. The first item on his agenda, his sizzling, star cast Italian tragedies had earned him legendary status on the Haymarket even as a young man. But a quarter of a century after first lighting up the West End, audiences had begun to grow weary of the maestro’s increasingly hyperbolic dramma per musica. Box office receipts were in worrisome decline. The question of how to recover must have weighed heavily on the composer-turned-impresario’s mind.
November 22, 1735 was St. Cecilia’s Day in London. The occasion honouring the patroness of music had continued to loom large on the civic arts calendar since Purcell’s time. Handel had diligently fashioned a purpose-crafted concert, as he had done for the birthday of Queen Anne, to celebrate the festive event. The immensely receptive and no less lucrative reaction to the piece, belatedly premiered several months later — a colorful setting of a mock Greek poem of praise by John Dryden, Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music — undoubtedly set the composer thinking. Perhaps the time had come to refocus on similar earlier vocal experiments with exclusively English-language texts. Oratorio, the looser, more experimental style he had been tentatively developing over the course of the previous few years — less flamboyant declamation than opera seria, more narrative potential than ode — might very well be the way forward, given his reluctance to abandon the theatre entirely.
Alexander’s Feast proved to be a pivot point in George Frideric Handel’s career. Saul, Samson, Semele all lay ahead.
Exhibiting bracing style and flair, Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, joined by a trio of excellent soloists, launched the first in a series of four concurrent presentations of the maestro’s rousing musical epiphany last Thursday to a clearly enthralled Koerner Hall crowd. Led with endless vivacity and zest by conductor and choral director Ivars Taurins marshalling a fine, gifted group of artists partnered by a towering chorus, the 2-hour plus excursion through Handel’s intensely radiant soundscape yields spectacular thrills.
While fiercely impassioned and highly figured, Alexander’s Feast is only loosely anchored by story. Dryden’s rambling ode, edited and somewhat realigned by Handel’s friend and librettist, Newburgh Hamilton, is more a calculated attempt to emulate Pindar than a concerted telling of any coherent ancient tale. The sense of chronicle only dimly adorns Dryden/Hamilton’s stanzas. There are no stand alone characterizations. Music provides the real drama, a breathlessly sketched portrait of Alexander the Great following his defeat of the Persian king, Darius.
To the magical strains of the immortal musician Timotheus’ lyre, Alexander declares himself a god. Bacchus is summoned. Wine is consumed. Alexander is aroused by the memory of battles fought and won, implacable King Darius slain. Again Timotheus strikes his lyre, summoning a gentler tone. Alexander is soothed by his mistress, the beautiful courtesan Thaïs, only to be awakened from sweet sleep by Timotheus’ ringing call to action. Seizing a blazing torch, mind enflamed, Alexander sets fire to Persepolis, the once glittering Persian capital, avenging his fallen comrades as exhorted. Contrasting the malign power wielded by Timotheus with the benign influence of Saint Cecilia, Handel ends the piece on a grand upswelling of Christian thankfulness.
Tafelmusik’s superb choristers more than rise to the occasion with a magnifcently triumphant rendering.
Atmospheric and affecting as Alexander’s Feast may be, the physical embodiment of theatrical values is not, however, Handel’s primary intention. The ode, one of the lengthiest he wrote, is a frank, unapologetic excuse for musical invention pure and simple, an explicit mirroring of mood and emotion, broadly expository, markedly episodic. Singer actors relate text. Chorus comments. The orchestra, prismatic and robust, is substantially self-referencing, various passages evoking various situations.
Numbering some 27-players, all seasoned period specialists, Tafelmusik’s agile ensemble assumes a multiplicity of voices, gloriously emotive. Natural horns sound a brassy call to battle. Violins rustle as The listening crowd. Bassoons, violas, cellos and basses become the ghostly Greeks. The quality of instrumental harmony graphically on display here is extraordinary.
The bright, tripping Baroque harp Handel so glowingly spotlights in his Harp Concerto in B flat Major, Op. 4, No. 6 resolutely embedded in Act I personifies Timotheus at his most lyrical. Conversely, the Concerto for Organ in D minor, Op. 7, No. 4 that all but concludes the work, references St. Cecilia, the organ typically associated with her sphere of influence — and Handel’s. The composer often played on stage and in the pit, showcasing both sacred and secular selections of his own devising, in frequent, much admired appearances.
Harpist Julia Seager-Scott and organist Neil Cockburn play their respective gorgeously filigreed solos with utter transcendency.
The Concerto grosso in C “Alexander’s Feast” , a heroic interlude inserted by Handel at the opening of Part II, is omitted in this concert offering. Even Handel, ever anxious to provide ticket holders with their moneys worth, would surely not object to the timing cut given the abundant wealth of music on show elsewhere throughout the evening.
Time and time again, Handel surprises and rewards, reworking old, pre-existing vocal formats, subverting expectations. Coloratura pops up mid phrase, accenting single words, embellishing an aside, a passing thought, a pointed observation. Da capo airs are repeatedly and playfully deconstructed. What would normally be treated as a conventional ABA aria for tenor, War, he sung, is toil and trouble, by any other composer of the day, unravels in an astonishingly progressive, yet still complex way in Handel’s handling, verses doubling and redoubling without the slightest loss of pulsing momentum. Recitatives, a good number handsomely orchestrated, are often similarly startling, many — the mournful soprano accompagnato With downcast looks the joyless victor sat among them — assuming the quality of discrete, heartfelt song.
Soprano soloist Amanda Forsythe gifts this lovely, resonant Alexander’s Feast with great poise and charm, singing with lustrous clarity and abiding warmth. Her rendition of Handel’s gentle Softly sweet in Lydian measure — a tender arioso built on a mellow ground played by cello, double bass and organ — is beyond exquisite.
With his sincere, transparent stylings and honest technique, tenor Thomas Hobbs invests his performance with touching sincerity flashed with irresistible enthusiasm.
Bass-baritone Alexander Dobson, confined to the sidelines for much of the evening by virtue of the rather high prevailing tessitura, contributes a show-stopping turn of virtuosic proportions, delivering the epic Revenge, revenge, Timotheus cries darkly draped in drama, haunting and haunted.
Tafelmusik’s sumptuous Alexander’s Feast is Handelian fine dining at its best serving up a rich banquet of Baroque expression. Every course is delicious. Eat heartily.
Final performance Sunday, February 25th.