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arts & books: Giving Cleopatra the needle

CLASSICAL Handel's Alexander Balus Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Prospective candidates for "Brain of Britain" would no doubt develop sweaty palms when quizzed about the identity of Alexander Balus, one of those awkward biblical characters who might easily be mistaken for a pioneer of quantum theory or for the inventor of some handy household appliance. His Old Testament status was clearly recognised by Handel's contemporaries, however, allowing the composer and his librettist Thomas Morrell to construct an oratorio on the military campaigns of the Jewish warlord, his love- affair with Cleopatra and hoped for conversion of the infidel to the one true God.

The gist of Morrell's plot, extracted from the First Book of the Maccabees and decorated with fragments drawn from Milton and Shakespeare, turns uncomfortably on the public celebration of Jewish patriotism and the private love of Alexander and Cleopatra. Handel was eager to repeat the popular success in April 1747 of his sabre-rattling oratorio, Judas Maccabaeus, and swiftly ordered another militaristic text from Morrell. History has it that the composer collaborated closely with his librettist on Alexander Balus, although the work reflects more its hasty composition than any obvious care taken over dramatic pacing.

Last Wednesday, at the QEH, the conductor Robert King went some way towards redefining the accepted view of Alexander Balus as a "problem" oratorio, responding with verve to Handel's colourful instrumentation and offsetting the score's lack of contrast between major and minor keys by his shrewd choice of speeds. Judicious pruning of certain arias and da capo sections served King's cause, as did the industrious, often breathtaking work of his Consort and of New College Choir. But the dramatic torpor of the first two acts outweighed the best efforts of conductor and band, further undermined by the lifeless early contributions of Catherine Denley as Alexander and Charles Daniels' stiff delivery of Jonathan's recitatives.

In matters of style and technique, Denley proved beyond reproach, shifting into vocal top gear for such heroic airs as "Mighty love now calls to arms" and "Fury, with red sparkling eyes". I wish it were possible to apply Dr Burney's remarks on Handel's original Alexander, that "there was always something spirited and interesting in her manner", with equal force to Denley's performance, but too often it seemed remote and emotionally tepid. Conversely, Lynne Dawson's Cleopatra was sensually hot but lacked the commanding technical control of her partner. She was at her best in the captivating "Hark! hark! he strikes the golden lyre", deliciously scored for two flutes, strings, harp and mandolin, with theorbo and organ continuo, and the genuinely moving "O take me from this hateful light", Cleopatra's initially unaccompanied response to news of the deaths of Alexander and of her treacherous father Ptolemy. Of the other soloists, Claron McFadden did as much as humanly possible to raise Aspasia's airs above the ordinary, succeeding notably in "So shall the sweet attractive smile", while Michael George powerfully underlined Ptolemy's implacable side. Faced with the break-neck speed set for "Hateful man!", Charles Daniels negotiated the prolonged coloratura passages without sustaining any obvious injury apart from possible damage to his credentials as a truly heroic Handelian tenor.

Andrew Stewart