George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)
Lucy Crowe (soprano)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor)
Andrew Foster-Williams (bass-baritone)
Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn
St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead, London
7 and 8 November 2011
This recording of Alceste is performed by the Early Opera Company and Christian Curnyn, whose other Handel recordings for Chandos have all received glowing accolades: Semele, for instance, was an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone and one of the Records of 2007 in The Sunday Times. The recording of Flavio was nominated for a Gramophone Award in 2011, in the Baroque Vocal category.
In Alceste, Admetus, the terminally ill King of Thessaly, is promised by Apollo that he can defer his premature death if another person volunteers to die in his place. Alcestis, the beloved wife of Admetus, bravely sacrifices herself to die in his place. The hero Hercules visits his grieving friend Admetus, resolves to travel to Hades, overpowers Pluto, returns Alcestis to the world of the living, and restores her to Admetus.
The production of Alceste was initially envisaged as an expensive collaboration between the Scottish-born novelist and playwright Tobias Smollett, the Covent Garden company of actors and singers, the theatre owner and manager John Rich, the prestigious composer Handel, and the elaborate scenery designer Giovanni Servandoni. However, soon after full rehearsals began, Alceste was aborted permanently for reasons that are unclear. One theory to explain the cancellation is that the lavishness of the production became too expensive for Rich to risk box-office failure – another is that the temperamental Smollett quarrelled violently with the theatre owner, who might have responded by cancelling the production. Whatever the reason behind the cancellation, Smollett’s abandoned script for the play was lost, and only Handel’s incidental music survives today.
Although Handel never performed his music for Alceste, he characteristically found plenty of practical uses for it.
He adapted several sinfonias, choruses, and arias to form the majority of the music for The Choice of Hercules, and several other numbers were later used in revivals of Belshazzar and Alexander Balus.