Friday 31 March 2017

Handel's Alceste and Boyce's Solomon: Early Opera Company delight in two unjustly neglected works

Designs by Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni who was to have designed Handel & Smollett's Alceste
Designs by Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni who was to have designed
Handel & Smollett's Alceste
Handel Concerto Grosso Op.6, No.1 and Alceste, Boyce Solomon; Mary Bevan, Benjamin Hulett, James Platt, Early Opera Company, Christian Curnyn; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 29 2017
Star rating: 4.5

A pair of rarities in this engaging evening of music by Handel and Boyce

Slap bang in the middle of the London Handel Festival, though not part of it, Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company popped up at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday 29 March 2017, with a prime Handel rarity, the incidental music for Tobias Smollett's play, Alceste. Curnyn and the company were joined by soloists Mary Bevan (soprano), Benjamin Hulett (tenor) and James Platt (bass) for a programme which include Alceste and the Concerto grosso Op.6 No.1 in G HWV319 plus excerpts from another rarity William Boyce's serenata Solomon.

The programme opened with Handel's Concerto grosso Op.6 No.1 in which the 10 players of the orchestra made a very grand noise indeed. The opening movement was full of colour, with a vibrant sound and plenty of rhythmic vigour. Throughout the piece we noticed the strong sound which the group made, and their sense of vitality. The third movement Adagio, featured some lovely plangent solos whilst the concluding Allegro was full of verve.

The orchestra was then joined by oboes, trumpets and singers making 22 people on a rather crowded stage, not that their music making reflected this. There was a vocal ensemble of eight singers for the choruses, with soloists Mary Bevan, Benjamin Hulett and James Platt singing in the ensemble and two other singers in the ensemble Zoe Brookshaw and Tim Travers Brown also featuring as soloists in Alceste.

William Boyce's serenata Solomon was written in 1742, whilst Handel was in Dublin. The whole lasts around 75 minutes and requires just two soloists (soprano and tenor) in two unnamed roles (He and She) singing English texts inspired (distantly) by the Song of Solomon. It was a popular work, was published and the male solo was sung by the great tenor John Beard. We heard the overture and a sequence of five arias, recitatives and a duet. The overture started with a very grand, Handelian Largo followed by a perky Allegro played with terrific verve and a graceful Larghetto. Then came a pair of solos, the cheerful Fair and comely is my love sung with vibrant tones by Benjamin Hulett and the the vigorously joyful O fill with cooling juice sung by Mary Bevan and complete with trumpets. Their delightful duet Together let us range the fields was robustly pastoral whilst the final air for Hulett with chorus, Softly rise, O southern breeeze featured fabulous bassoon part. The overture apart, Boyce's music seemed less distinctively characterful than Handel in similar vein (eg. L'Allegro) and relied on a certain delightful charm.

Tobias Smollett's play Alceste has not survive, so we have no way of knowing what it would have actually contained. The production was planned, complete with very grand set designs by Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni (who had worked on the Royal Fireworks), but it was never produced. It is seems from Handel's surviving music that the effect was going to be akin to one of Purcell's semi-operas with minor characters singing and the music punctuating the plot rather than driving it. All we have is the overture, a sequence of solos and choruses from Act One referred to as Grand Entrée and a sequence of arias, choruses and dances from Act Four.

It is prime Handel, and whilst the music rather lacks dramatic context it holds together because of the sheer quality. The overture was in the grand French manner with sections which really danced along, and the rousing opening chorus mixed choral contributions with short solos, all performed with a fabulous swing. A pair of solos followed, in different ways both rather busy, showing off Mary Bevan's neat passage-work and Benjamin Hulett's combination of vibrant tone and fine runs. A strikingly rhythmic choruses preceded Bevan's air, Gentle Morpheus. This is one of the piece's hit numbers, sung with gentle elegance and ravishing tone by Bevan, accompanied by gentle throbbing from the orchestra.

Next came an air for Charon, Ye fleeting shades, I come sung by James Platt. It is clear that Charon here is a very jolly man, very happy in his job and Platt conveyed this beautifully his darkly resonant tones reminding of Handel's Polyphemus and Platt crowned the air with a fine top E at the end. A further chorus and air for Hulett were both pastoral in vein. Bevan's air Come, Fancy, empress of the brain was terrific, with fine passage-work engagingly sung. We finished with a sequence of mixing orchestra, Hulett's firm-toned yet lyrical solos and dance movements with a final chorus, Handel knitting the various elements together by repeating material.

This was a wonderfully engaging performance, with vibrant music making and some outstanding solo moments. The music from Alceste might lack a dramatic outline, but the quality of the music making from Mary Bevan, Benjamin Hulett, James Platt, Christian Curnyn, and the Early Opera Company, meant that we were constantly delighted.

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