This semi-opera was originally intended to complement Smollett's play at Covent Garden but for a variety of reasons - cost, arguments, lack of suitable singers - it never reached the stage. Never one to waste his labours, Handel made the best of things by re-cycling the majority of the music from this aborted project in "The Choice of Hercules", itself performed as an interlude during a revival of the ode "Alexander's Feast" and other numbers appeared in "Belshazzar" and "Alexander Balus". The original work was forgotten so we must be grateful for the chance to hear it reconstructed here for three main singers, with conductor Christian Curnyn choosing to insert two instrumental numbers to represent the banks of the Styx and Elysium respectively.
The sound is excellent: roomy, slightly reverberant and "churchy". The playing is exemplary and indeed often virtuosic - the work of the two trumpeters in particular, who slither up and down the scale wonderfully in the "Grande Entrée" (track 2). The small choir makes a lovely, well-tuned and balanced sound and their diction is excellent. Tenor Benjamin Hulett sings in the best tradition of British Handelian tenors such as the late Anthony Rolfe Johnson, being fleet and light yet virile of tone. I am less impressed by "bass-baritone" Andrew Foster-Williams, not because he is in any sense an inadequate singer but because in accordance with another less admirable British tradition he is clearly no kind of bass and hardly a baritone given his lack of low notes in his one area for Charon, "Ye fleeting shades, I come". His voice has the slightly throaty quality common to a singer working in too low a tessitura and the low E is a groan. The aria is expertly sung but lacks the macabre gravitas a true bass could impart to it.
The main vocal attraction here is the chance to hear up-and-coming soprano Lucy Crowe in several extended arias embracing a variety of styles. Although she is making a brilliant career as a lyric soprano, she in fact has a warm, mezzo-ish quality to her timbre with a very attractive, flickering vibrato which thankfully never approaches a tremolo. In the extended aria "Come, Fancy" she displays a trill, fluent coloratura and a welcome smile in the voice. Her centre-piece, however, and the most substantial piece in the whole work is the slow, da capo aria "Gentle Morpheus" which is in a mode of measured sublimity familiar to those who know their "Theodora", written at the same time and also doomed to ignominy before its modern revival and proper celebration as one of Handel's masterpieces.
The orchestral interpolations work and complement those such as the dignified "Frenchified" Symphony preceding Hercules' triumphant appearance with the rescued Alcestis. I really enjoyed the vigour and generous phrasing of the authentic band here; no squawking and no clipped phrases.
Unlike "Theodora", "Alceste" is not quite, I think, a masterpiece. For all its incidental beauties, it has an element of "Handel by the yard" about it but this is as persuasive an advocacy for its many charms as we are ever likely to get and I commend the musicality of the players and the two main singers in a nonetheless charming work.