Alexander Balus, the third in a series of oratorios by Handel celebrating the Hanoverian victory at Culloden, differs from the others in having a more compelling narrative, concentrating more on human relationships. It is also less triumphal. It is a mystery as to why this lovely work is not performed far more often, having also some of the most beautiful and touching music that Handel ever wrote.

© Arianna Vendittelli
© Arianna Vendittelli

The story concerns Cleopatra Thea (c.164-121 BC) of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Hellenistic Egypt, not to be confused with the later and better known Cleopatra VII Philopator (69-30 BC). Thomas Morell's text is based on historical events, but only vaguely. In this telling, the historical Alexander I Balas, king of the Seleucid dynasty of Syria, is betrothed to Cleopatra, under the apparently benevolent aegis of her father Ptolomee (Ptolemy VII Philometer), and the friendly eye of Alexander’s ally, the Jewish leader Jonathan Maccabaeus. Alas, Ptolomee is a snake in the grass, and after a brief moment of married bliss, Cleopatra is abducted by his “ruffians”, he attacks the Seleucids, and Alexander is killed, and Ptolemee also dies. Cleopatra is bereft and Jonathan, in an aria followed by a chorus which manages to be uplifting but not boastful, concludes with the observation that both Egyptians and Seleucids were laid low due to their obeisance to failed gods. In the real historical world, Cleopatra had a rather more successful career.

The performance of this work at Herzberg am Harz, as part of the 2018 Göttingen International Handel Festival, in the lovely 19th-century St Nicolai-Kirche, was almost perfection; alas it was marred by a series of cuts. No arias were omitted, but many of them lost not only their da capo but also the B section, a real shame when the singing and playing were so good. Orchestral music was provided by Musica Alta Ripa under the direction of Jörg Straube, augmented with the two flautists from the FestspielOrchester Göttingen, Kate Clark and Brian Berryman. One of the delights of the work is its unusual orchestral scoring, also involving harp and mandolin. The exemplary continuo group included a particularly fun bassoon.

Landesjugendchor Niedersachsen © Helge Krückeberg
Landesjugendchor Niedersachsen
© Helge Krückeberg

The Landesjugenchor Niedersachsen was a revelation, all aged between 16 and 26 and coached by Straube; they would put many an older and professional choir to shame. Not only were they supremely disciplined, they also looked like they were having a great time, and it was a delight to see their bright young faces. Their English diction was also excellent. 

The soloists were not quite as youthful, but were all early career singers, of whom one expects to hear more in the future. The title role, written for Caterina Galli, was sung by mezzosoprano Marcjanna Myrlak, who had excellent technique and a nice timbre, but seemed somewhat underpowered. On the one hand, it might be that Alexander really has the most musically uninteresting arias, and in the far more exciting “Fury with red sparkling eyes”, Myrlak rose to the occasion, and it was one of many when one missed the complete aria. On the other hand, one wonders if the tessitura of the role was a bit low for her, as she produced some exciting high notes at different times.

Jonathan was sung by exciting English tenor William Wallace, a recent Handel Singing Competition winner, and he impressed, with commanding and attractive tone, even across its range, and displaying true squillo at the top. All his arias were rendered with confidence and an appropriately noble mien, but the last, “To God, who made the radiant sun” was particularly well-judged and heart felt. Martin Achrainer as Ptolomee also impressed, with lots of volume and a rich full-bodied flexible bass voice, pretty good English, and nicely projected nastiness in the role. Cleopatra’s confidante Aspasia was well sung by soprano Giulio Bolcato with a pleasing light timbre, good coloratura and sweet tone.

Arianna Venditelli was Cleopatra. In a consummate vocal and dramatic performance, she totally embodied the innocent young princess, directed to marry the dashing Alexander, experiencing momentary wedded bliss, then totally devastated by her separation from him and his subsequent death.  Her initial aria “Hark, hark! He strikes the golden lyre”, accompanied by flutes and harp, was utterly beguiling, with the sweetest of smiles and flirtatious looks, and her voice seemed to become more entrancing with every aria. Her final aria sequence was almost beyond compare, highlighting some of Handel’s most touching writing for soprano. First, the lament “O take me from this hateful light” was breathtaking in itself, but the subsequent aria of resignation “Convey me to some peaceful shore” was totally, wonderfully, devastating. A truly great singer in the making.