Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music, John Dryden’s ode in honor of St. Cecilia, was set to music by Handel in 1736. With the possible exception of Athalia (1733) it was Handel’s first truly successful English work of concert length proportions that was not compromised by sometimes hastily done revision and expansion. It is a constantly surprising work of Handel’s prime (he was 51 at the time) where music and words come together in perfect accord, and where Handel’s already fully developed sense of dramatic effect was superbly made clear.
On Saturday evening in Sander’s Theatre, the Harvard/Radcliffe Chorus joined by a first rate professional period instrument orchestra and three vocal soloist under the direction of Edward Elwyn Jones, gave a reading of it that was always commendable, and at times stunningly more than that.
The work was written at a difficult time for Handel. After 20-plus years of successful Italian operatic ventures in London, audiences had by the mid-1730s fallen away, creating an artistic conundrum as well as a financially perilous position for him. Handel’s artistic and financial future needed redirection. Dryden’s 1697 ode provided the vehicle. It honors, a bit perplexingly, Cecilia (2nd century A.D.), the sainted patron of music by focusing on Alexander the Great (3rd century B.C.), on the occasion of his defeat of the Persian army at Persepolis. The real hero, however, is Timotheous, who at the great feast celebrating Alexander’s triumph over Darius III, exercises his extraordinary musicianly arts as a singer and player of the lyre so successfully that the ode’s subtitle, The Power of Music, is explained.
During the course of the evening Timotheous, with voice and lyre, flatters the king’s vanity in a variety of enticements, encomiums and remembrances: the pleasures of drink (the king enthusiastically imbibes); recognition of the valiant foe, Darius (dead on the field of battle “with not a friend to close his eyes”); the king’s libido (lovely consort Thais, ”The vanquished victor sunk upon her breast”); and finally the devastating loss of so many of his own men in battle rouses the king to such a degree of madness that he seizes “a flambeau, with a zeal to destroy” the city of Persepolis by burning.
Finally, Cecilia, the second century saint appears in a sort of epilogue—at that point we perhaps need to be reminded that the ode is in her honor. Reconciliation of the Alexander/Cecilia/Timotheous relationship comes in the closing lines of the ode, “He [Timotheous] raised a mortal (Alexander) to the skies,/ She (Cecilia) drew an angel down.”
As the chorus began their procession to the stage on Saturday, I began to think, Mercy! Is this a performance I should be attending? It is rare these days in Boston to see such a large chorus, 150 or so, except on the stage of Symphony Hall. And for a performance of Handel! Gratefully, my fears were soon assuaged, at least to a degree. At their first appearance, in the chorus with solo: “Happy, happy… None but the brave deserve the fair,” I was pleased to hear that the singing was clear, lithe, textually alert and, in terms of amplitude, did not entirely swallow up the wonderful period instrument orchestra, nor did it do so for most of the evening. Not all of the choral singing was as sophisticated as one would have liked and, truthfully, the tenor sound seemed noticeably undernourished. I missed the ensemble tightness that a smaller choir of trained singers can produce, but not terribly. Jones has done an excellent job in pulling this obviously amiable and intelligent group together to serious musical purpose.
The professional period orchestra, a large and luxurious one in Handelian terms, played splendidly throughout. Alexander’s Feast is especially rich in instrumental solo opportunities, and the standard of performance was high all evening long. The flutes had to wait a couple of hours for their first (and only) appearance; trumpet and drum half that long. The two excellent natural horn players, John Aubrey and James Hampson, did their excellent bit to encourage the king’s alcoholic excesses early on and then left, maybe to go for a deserved drink of their own. Colleen McGary-Smith gave us a beautifully played cello obbligato. Ageless and invaluable oboist Steven Hammer was happily back and at his customary best. Violin leader Sarah Darling was in charge of an always alert and well-tuned string band. And I must mention the three—yes, three, count ‘em!—bassoonists (very unusual in a Handel orchestra) who, along with the divided violas and cellos, provided an appropriately spooky environment for the Grecian ghosts, slain in battle and “unburied, remain/Inglorious on the plain.” Chilling! Handel waited three years, until 1739, in Saul, to give us a comparably sinister moment, in the Witch of Endor scene in that great psychological music drama.
In the intervening three years Handel composed three more Italian operas, all failures. After which there was no turning back. The Italians were sent home. Then during the rich 1740s Handel created an unmatched array of dramatic oratorios and other concert length works, which the world is only now beginning fully to appreciate.
Of the vocal soloists, the tenor Jonas Budris is a young singer who was tasked with representing the character of Timotheous, which he did admirably for the most part, and engagingly as to personality. The voice is a good one and he is an intelligent singer. I would have welcomed a bit more dramatic involvement, especially in the “War, he sung, is toil and trouble” aria. This is a bravura moment, which he understands, but the method of attaining its potential lay rather too much on beat emphasis and not enough on follow-through, just not quite enough in place vocally yet. Still, the potential here is quite good.
Baritone Douglas Williams, also a good singer and musician in a relatively small part in this work seemed more at home in the “Revenge” aria than as Bacchus. I wanted him to pick up a bit more of the horn players’ swagger. They made me thirsty for a glass of bubbly; he not so much.
The star of the show was the inestimable soprano—a local treasure and an international presence—Amanda Forsythe. I last heard her at Covent Garden last year as Nannetta in Falstaff, in a starry cast where she more than held her own, and where her silvery, beautifully focused sound carried to all the corners of the hall. That she is a fine singing actress was clear in that performance. Now perhaps there are other singers in the world who sing Verdi and Handel with equal skill and style and sensitivity to the meaning of words. I can’t name one though. This is simply at or near the most excellent singing of Handel I’ve heard. The concept of style in this music is constantly evolving these days, and Forsythe is apparently tuned in to that, but surely an even larger part of the wonder of her approach is her response to words. That she does this without distorting Handel’s musical phrases is part of the miracle of her art. If a librettist gave Handel good words entwined with evocative images, he never failed. Single words and phrases stand out in my memory of Forsythe’s performance: “sublime,” “round her slender waist he curl’d,” “sooth’d his soul to pleasures,” and more. There were not a lot of embellishments in her performance, but those that were there showed that she knows how to do them and were stylish, original and exciting.
The whole evening was presided over at the harpsichord by the musicianly and obviously skilled conductor Edward Elwyn Jones. He has become a major player in the Boston/Cambridge musical scene over recent years and every good thing one has heard about him seems to be true. I would quibble with some of his tempo choices and some aspects of pacing in this performance, and even some pronunciations. But then he’s British and I’m not. Those quibbles are minor. He was in charge. He knew what he wanted, and seemed to be getting it, at least as far as I could tell.
Congratulations to him and to the whole company of joyous music makers for reminding us yet again what a musical and dramatic genius Handel was. And of how much we continue to learn year by year of the range of that mastery.