Caution. These discs should come with an asbestos slipcase, so incendiary is the performance they convey. And they force you to question why Alessandro is not as familiar a mainstay of the Handelian stage as, say, Ariodante, Alcina or Giulio Cesare. Given a score of such richness, variety and passion, it’s puzzling too that there have been only three recordings in as many decades, the first conducted by Sigiswald Kuijken in the 1980s, with a certain René Jacobs in the title role.
Faced with the opportunity to unite the fiery Italian divas Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni alongside the equally crowd-pulling castrato Senesino, Handel was firing on all cylinders for this 1726 operatic take on Alexander the Great, his provocative claims to be the son of Jove, and his conquests in India (on and off the battlefield). Showstopper follows showstopper in a dazzling array calculated to exploit the phenomenal talents so obligingly to hand. Indeed, the opera’s been regularly plundered whenever the heiresses of Cuzzoni and Bordoni have pondered bravura compilation albums. Decca however has gone to Greece and done the piece proud. Each of the three leads is outstanding, at times stupendous. But for all the star quality, the performance remains a supremely ensemble effort, singers and instrumentalists striking sparks off each other under the energised and energising musical direction of George Petrou. In the title role countertenor Max Emanuel Cencic is imperious hot-bloodedness personified (the sheer spleen at the line ‘Se mi offende’ – ‘If I’m offended’ – leaves no doubt that the ‘if’ is superfluous, and the aria ‘Vano amore’ is as commanding as its athleticism is secure). Julia Lezhneva (Rossane) negotiates Act III’s ‘Brilla nell’alma’ with intoxicating joie de vivre. And perhaps best of all is Karina Gauvin’s utterly disarming Lisaura, her coloratura dazzling, her bright soprano full of personality. Act I’s ‘Quanto dolce amor’ utterly ravishes while the surging virtuosity of ‘No, più soffrir non voglio’ is surfed with jaw-dropping aplomb. Just as thrilling is the visceral playing – on period instruments – of Armonia Atenea. Pert and incisive, the overture crackles with energy and no holds are barred as the wall of Oxidraca spectacularly succumbs to Alexander’s mighty battering ram. Virgil got it so wrong: never beware Greeks bearing gifts as munificent and ear-opening as this! A revelation.