Early in the 18th century, English opera audiences tasted the sweets of bel canto singing and craved more. Handel, having arrived on the scene, gave them just what they wanted. The star system had come into vogue and composers tended to tailor their operas for the Italian virtuosos who staffed opera houses throughout Europe. It was not unusual, therefore, for Handel, blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with two soprano superstars who were at war with each other on stage and off, to devise an opera that exploited the situation.

His opera "Alessandro," a tale of two women competing for the love of Alexander the Great, is four hours of glorious coloratura da capo arias that follow one another separated by only the most perfunctory bits of action and narrative recitative. It fit the bill admirably.

Stephen Simon brought what is thought to be its U.S. premiere to the Kennedy Center last night in a concert performance and, as in other Handel Festival concerts, this one featured a superb slate of soloists. Ashley Putnam as Rossane and Gianna Rolandi as Lisaura were worthy successors of the original divas. Both sopranos have the sort of supple, accurate and well-focused voices that can make coloratura singing sound like fun, and both have voices big and rich enough to be dramatically convincing. Janice Taylor was an appealing, if not particularly caddish, Alessandro. Countertenor Rene Jacobs was superb as Tassile and similarly splendid performances were given by Donnie Ray Albert, James Atherton and Catherine Robbin.

The orchestra, which in general played with a stylish energy, had occasional trouble staying together and with the soloists, but this was the only ensemble problem in an otherwise brilliant night of music-making.