If anyone's keeping track of the things George Fridrich Handel could do better than me, don’t forget reading John Dryden’s poetry. If there was ever a demonstration of a silk purse made out of stuff not nearly so fine, it is Alexander’s Feast.
Last night I sat watching Dryden’s inane couplets flash up on the back balconies of Disney Hall with increasing exasperation. Dryden’s poem assumes the existence of readers who can catch an allusion to the legend that Alexander the Great was conceived when his mother, Olympia, was ravished by Zeus disguised as a snake, but who, on the other hand, need to be informed that “Sweet is pleasure after pain.”
But it didn’t matter. The words were a pretext for Handel to show off everything solo and massed voices can do, with movements from harp and organ concerti thrown in for added spice. It’s a complete musical variety show, circa 1736 London. Individual numbers are instantly recognizable, but the piece as a whole seems never to have been recorded. Major thanks to Grant Gershon for making it happen. The Los Angeles Master Chorale was tremendous.
The staging (Trevore Ross) and lighting (Azra King-Abadi) provided all the context that was needed. The chorus were the guests at Alexander’s party. The soloists stepped aside to share their arias with the audience. Handel the inspired reader discerned the story latent in Dryden's poem: a story of music fueling feelings of triumph, drunkenness, sorrow, love, anger …. And then when Alexander and his party gets out of control, music as harmony and order appears in the form of Saint Cecilia at the organ. This bit was especially well staged with Disney’s dramatic organ loft. "Music won the cause" hands down.
[Image: The Banquet of Cleopatra (Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1744)]