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MUSIC REVIEW

Cecilia opens with 'Choice' Handel

On Saturday night the Boston Cecilia opened its 130th season -- its 38th under music director Donald Teeters -- with the Boston premiere of a delightful mini-oratorio by Handel, ''The Choice of Hercules."

This was one of Handel's final works, a one-hour piece in which Pleasure and Virtue vie for a commitment from the young hero Hercules. Most of the music was originally composed for a theatrical adaptation of the noble ancient myth of Alcestis, but that production was canceled. Not one to waste perfectly good music, Handel adapted it to a very different and rather amusing scenario. Pleasure has frolicsome music; stately Virtue has no time for relaxation, mirth, or sexual dalliance. Hercules finally chooses to make Virtue's ''steep ascent," but the final chorus, in a minor key, is more stern than jubilant. Was Handel regretting his own long lifetime of ceaseless industry?

Teeters and the Boston Cecilia have performed at least as many works by Handel as any conductor and ensemble in this country. ''The Choice of Hercules" has been recorded a few times in England, but this was evidently only the second American performance. Everyone was on home ground. The orchestra, seated in an oval around Teeters, played with vigor and character, and the chorus sang with balance, discipline, and investment.

Three of the soloists were long-established Handelians. Sharon Baker and Pamela Dellal played Pleasure and Virtue as divas in a catfight: Baker's evergreen soprano gamboled deliciously through Handel's inventions; Dellal's lustrous tone and volatile temperament made even Virtue sound attractive. Jeffrey Gall, who sang Hercules, was not the first countertenor to tackle Handel's virtuoso alto roles, but 30 years ago he was the first to do it successfully, with vibrant, manly tone; virtuoso attack; linguistic sophistication; and musical imagination. He sings less evenly now, but he is still a superb musician, and his execution is meaningful. In a minor role, tenor Aaron Sheehan represented the newest generation with vocal aplomb and musical charm.

The program began with two of Handel's ''Coronation Anthems," including the resplendent ''Zadok, the Priest," which has been sung at every coronation of a British monarch since it was composed in 1727. Gall also sang a solo cantata, ''Qualor crudele," with finesse and variety, admirably accompanied by cellist Shannon Snapp and harpsichordist Michael Beattie.

Last month Teeters won this year's lifetime achievement award from Choral Arts New England, bestowed in memory of longtime Boston choral master Alfred Nash Patterson. Teeters planned and conducted the program with devotion and skill, and the musical level he and the performers achieved was representative of the enviable standard he and the Boston Cecilia have maintained for decades.

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