By Truman C. Wang
Monday, April 18, 2016
“Alexander’s Feast” (premiered 1736, revised 1751) was one of three most popular works during Handel’s lifetime (the other two being “Messiah” and “Acis and Galatea”) and, judging from Sunday evening’s superb concert staging by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, it was not hard to understand why. The work itself is sui generis: part-oratorio, part-opera, and vastly entertaining in its variety of choruses, solo numbers, instrumental obbligati and concertos – in a nutshell there is something for everyone. Conductor Grant Gershon and his creative team Trevore Ross (director) and Azra King-Abadi (lighting designer) kicked things up a notch, redistributing the solo numbers among the Master Chorale members, flooding the hall with mood lighting that changed with the music, and building two high platforms resembling two banquet tables where the chorus sat. It was a feast for the eye before the music even began.
Most of Mr. Gershon’s musical choices were sound and theatrically effective, although I question the substitution of perky soprano for alto in the somber number ‘He chose a mournful Muse’, and the slow lethargic tempo in the Part II opening number (‘Now strike the golden lyre again’) that would hardly have been able to ‘Break his bonds of sleep asunder!’ But for the most part, Mr. Gershon’s conducting and phrasing-shaping were dramatically cogent and beautifully nuanced. The rustling of voices in ‘The listening crowd admired the lofty sound’ was wonderfully angelic, and the muted strings of the “Grecian ghosts” were hauntingly eerie. There were also notable instrumental contributions from the harp, horn, trumpet, flute and the cello (as per the original 1736 version of ‘Softly sweet in Lydian measures’, which Handel later rewrote for the violin). Organist Namhee Han’s dazzling performance on the mighty Walt Disney Concert Organ surely beat Handel’s own little portable theater organ used in all his organ concertos.
Despite the lack of traditional SATB soloists in this production, their parts were filled by fourteen (yes fourteen) resident members of the Chorale, each partaking in one part of a multi-part aria or recitative, effectively and seamlessly integrating the chorus into the drama. Among the standouts were bass Steve Pence’s drunken aria ‘Bacchus ever fair and young’, soprano Claire Fedoruk’s wickedly-delicious ‘The Prince unable to conceal his pain’, and soprano Christina Bristow’s gorgeously radiant “With ravish’d ears the monarch hears” (in the same joyful vein as the soprano aria ‘Volate amori’ from Handel’s opera “Ariodante”, written only a year before).
But the greatest feature of the evening was the Master Chorale itself, who sang and acted like a great opera chorus, commenting on the drama as well as projecting a wide range of emotions, from the exhilarating ‘Happy happy pair’ (the happiest chorus since “Acis and Galatea”), and the chirpy will-o’-the-wisp sounds of ‘The listening crowd admired the lofty sound’, to the furies of ‘Rouse him like a peal of thunder’. The multipart fugues were particularly memorable for their expressive power, whether it’s depicting the tragedy of the ‘Fallen, fallen, fallen’ Darius, or launching the final glorious hymn to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music (‘Nature’s mother-wit, and arts unknown before’)
Writing oratorios, odes, masques, etc. was strictly a business and practical decision for Handel. Opera was his true love and it shows in “Alexander’s Feast” and a host of stage works that he wrote after 1740, when his floundering opera business finally and officially went bust. Thanks to the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s multi-year “Hidden Handel” Project, we are in for more veritable feasts of operatic treats.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.