Plenty to savor from Masterworks’ ‘Alexander’s Feast’
CAMBRIDGE — George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Alexander’s Feast’’ is indeed a feast. It has sweet melodies, rousing ensembles, and carefully chosen instrumental solos. It shows Handel exploring dramatic effects and reveling, for the first time, in expressing emotion in English, an art he would perfect over the next few years in subsequent oratorios, culminating in “Messiah.’’
There’s not much of a plot, and it is easier to follow if you have first read John Dryden’s poem, from which the libretto is taken. It describes the feast for Alexander the Great and his mistress after the defeat of the Persians at Persepolis. Here they are entertained by music, until, aroused by drink and the Greek poet Timotheus’ cries for vengeance, Alexander gets up and decides to burn down the rest of the city. The performance by the Masterworks Chorale at Sanders Theatre on Friday evening had many excellences, but it suffered from the omission of the climactic bass aria, “Revenge, Timotheus cries.’’ (There was no explanation in the program.) This aria makes sense of the back-drama and sets up the contrast between eras of pagan violence and Christian gentleness, and the arrival of St. Cecilia, the early Christian martyr and patron saint of music. Handel knew what worked. A touch of violence, chased with piety.
Handel’s early performances included several all-instrumental works for Alexander’s entertainment: a harp concerto (representing Timotheus’ lyre) and, later on, a concerto for organ (Cecilia’s instrument). None of these were performed on Friday, no doubt partly because of the expense, and possibly wariness of the clock. Nevertheless, there was one pleasing interpolation. The North Andover-based Treble Chorus of New England, a children’s chorus led by Valerie J. Becker, performed a chorus adapted from a soprano-alto duet (in another of Handel’s versions of the “Feast’’) and joined in the final chorus. They sang very well, and added joy to the occasion.
The 75-member Masterworks chorus is a fine amateur group, and sang on their mettle, musically and dramatically. They produced a big, round Victorian sound, the women outnumbering men by two-to-one, while a superb band of freelancers led by Carol Lieberman produced a focused, plangent, period-authentic sound. Conductor Steven Karidoyanes led with confidence and clarity, and found tempos that were manageable, bracing, and lively. Occasionally, he allowed a pause between movements which vitiated the surprising mood-shift that was one of Handel’s crowd-pleasing effects.
The soloists were all excellent. As the narrating figure, tenor Jason McStoots sang with clear diction and beautifully shaped Baroque emphasis and ornamentation. He has a light voice, too light for some dramatic passages, notably the moment when Alexander grabs the torch and heads off to burn the city. Teresa Wakim has a bejeweled lyric soprano, with an exquisite top register and a delicate feeling for Baroque phrasing. She did not always put across the text clearly when it lay in her lower register. Baritone Sumner Thompson sang with dramatic power and incisive diction. One had to imagine what he would do with “Revenge, Timotheus cries.’’
David Perkins can be reached at email@example.com.