L.A. Master Chorale's 'Alexander's Feast' is a treat for the ears and eyes

Mark Swed
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Music Critic

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.

"Hidden Handel" is the Master Chorale's salvaging operation of five, each to be semi-staged, and the first took place with performances of "Alexander's Feast" on Saturday and Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall. I would bet that the vast majority in Disney for the Saturday matinee, like me, knew the piece only from recordings. The hall was not full. It's-not-the-"Messiah"-Handel is a surprisingly hard sell.

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.

"Alexander's Feast" proved a great success and remains irresistible. It also remains shockingly relevant. The conceit concerns Alexander the Great, who, having sacked the Persian capital of Persepolis, is partying with his lover, Thaïs. In their drunken revelry, she suggests that it would be a blast to burn down the town. The Svengali-like songster Timotheus applies the power of music to inflame passions. Any stage director who wanted to update this to Palmyra wouldn't have to stretch far.

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 Master Chorale walked a fine line between concert and theater, being neither quite here nor there. While Handel tailored his score for three trusted opera singers, Master Chorale music director Grant Gershon and stage director Trevor Ross treated Alexander's feast as just that. Fourteen singers from the chorus assumed the solo duties, sometimes dividing a single recitative among as many three tenors. The middle sections of the three-part da capo arias were taken by a second singer.

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.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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