The Canberra Choral Society, under the overall direction of Australian countertenor Tobias Cole, has embarked on an annual series of Handel oratorio performances. Previous years have seen the relatively familiar Saul and Theodora; this year we were privileged to hear the seriously rare Alexander Balus, never before performed in Australia, and not often anywhere else. There can be no carping at a work that deserves its obscurity in this case, as the music is utterly magic and the plot no worse than many another.

The oratorio was semi-staged, with energetic movement around the stage by the principals, whose basic concert black was embellished by a cape here, a crown there, and a lovely golden asp-shaped diadem for Cleopatra, also resplendent in red gown. The chorus, also in black, featured delicately coloured scarves for the women, and a swathe of material round the waist for the men. The ladies differentiated between their role as “Asiatics” by wearing the scarves as hijabs, and “Israelites”, with the scarves simply draped around the neck. The staging although limited was sufficient to bring the work into lively dramatic focus. There was even an invitation to audience interaction in “Triumph, Hymen, in the pair”. There were some cuts, of four airs and a chorus, and the work was performed in two halves rather than the original three Acts.

Experienced Sydney oratorio conductor Brett Weymark brought all the forces into aligment, allowing the music to support the soloists and disciplining the first class chorus thus enhancing the narrative thrust. The pared down orchestra was led by local violinist Bianca Porcheddu, assisted by three of Australia’s leading baroque exponents, Kirsten Barry on oboe, Leanne Sullivan on natural trumpet and Erin Helyard on harpsichord.

The vocal soloists were uniformly excellent. Tobias Cole struck a heroic figure as the eponymous hero, and his somewhat angular voice rang out with clarity in the virtuosic arias, with excellent embellishments. Jacqueline Porter was a stunning Cleopatra, particularly in the finale, with three arias in a row culminating in a breathtaking rendition of “Convey me to some peaceful shore”. Her duet “O what pleasures past expressing” with extremely promising soprano newcomer Christina Wilson as Aspasia was gorgeous. A pity that Aspasia’s air “Love, glory, ambition” was dispensed with. Tenor Christopher Saunders as Jonathan was happily back in fine form after his disappointing appearance some weeks back in Salieri’s The Chimney Sweep (Sydney), and bass Christopher Richardson was an excellently resonant and malevolent Ptolemy.

Let us hope this excellent venture continues in this vein, with over 20 more Handel oratorios to choose from!

4 stars

Sandra Bowdler