Review: L.A. Master Chorale’s ‘Alexander’s Feast’ is a treat for the ears and eyes
The Los Angeles Master Chorale has gone looking for Handel. The composer of “The Messiah” is, of course, in plain sight every Christmas and Easter. Opera companies everywhere have been increasingly turning to Handel, and a significant new recording of one of his more than 30 major operas comes along practically every month or two (more than for any other composer). Still, concert presenters worship but one “Messiah,” leaving too many of the remaining two dozen oratorios neglected masterpieces.
Still “Alexander’s Feast” is an ideal starting place. Once the fad for the German composer’s Italian operas in London (where he spent most of his career) died down, he needed a new business. This setting of a John Dryden ode in tribute to music patron saint St. Cecilia and subtitled “The Power of Musick” was Handel’s English-language oratorio startup.
That is not to say “Alexander’s Feast” is a nasty piece of work. An angel is summoned to set things right. And in its most delicious moments, the score proves one of the all-time most irresistible hymns to music. The chorus, “Love was crown’d, but music won the cause,” wins the beatific cause as memorably as any “Hallelujah” chorus.
But what to do with “Alexander’s Feast”? It is both ode and oratorio (neither of which can be exactly pinned down), enlivened by instances of operatic insight. No music is specifically assigned to characters but rather implies them in narrative recitatives and highly characterful arias, with the choruses commenting on the action.
The chorus members, in formal concert dress, stood on risers behind the stage, and soloists came forward to sing either in front of the orchestra on one of two staircases placed behind the orchestra (an illuminated lyre hanging in front of the organ loft was the only other décor touch). For the opening of the first part, the singers amusingly broke out into partying. For the opening of the more militant second part, they assumed the stance of warriors. But otherwise they mostly stood and sang concert style.
Similarly, the soloists, not accustomed to assuming stage roles, could be stiff. They also projected variably. But the singing itself easily delighted, and the variety of voices lent a convincing social character.
Elissa Johnston was rightfully relied upon for the oratorio’s most introspective aria, “He Sung Darius, Great and Good.” Claire Fedoruk made for a bewitching Thaïs as she sang of sighing, looking and seductively sighing again. The chorus was tremendous in its big moments. The Master Chorale’s orchestra played with a suave Baroque style.
Interpolating a movement from a Handel harp concerto (with harpist JoAnn Turovsky) and an organ concerto (with Namhee Han as soloist) added a nice touch. Gershon’s Handelian verve placed an empowering emphasis on musical pleasure.
No details about the Master Chorale’s plans for the four more oratorios have been announced. Whatever they may be, let them have the musical highs of “Alexander’s Feast” and more by becoming a feast for the both ears and eyes.
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