Although its origins are somewhat obscure, Händel’s “Esther”, composed between 1718 and 1720, commonly referred to as the “first English oratorio”, was written for private performance at the residence of Händel’s patron James Brydges (later to become the Duke of Chandos), with the dramatic presentation of a biblical story being unfeasible for public performance in London of 1718. (The Bishop of London would not permit a biblical subject to be presented in the theatre by such morally questionable characters as professional singers.) Originally a masque (on a biblical subject!), it contained dance, spectacle and visual effects, paying homage to English theatre. Originally titled “The Oratorium”, it went through two versions. The libretto, based on Racine’s play of the same name, is attributed to Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot and presents most of the elements of the Esther story but with some inconsistencies.
Händel’s shortest and most intimate oratorio, it nevertheless offers singers many solos. In the Israel Festival performance, soloists entered and exited the stage. Short solos were performed by choir members; Tali Ketzef’s singing of “Praise the Lord with cheerful noise” was energetic and easeful. Countertenor Alon Harari changed timbre, mood and volume from role to role, his mellifluous singing of “Tune your harps”, intertwined with the serene beauty of the oboe obbligato (Amir Backman), contrasted with the impactful “How have our sins provk’d the Lord!” In the centerpiece “O Jordan, Jordan, sacred tide”, with the violins evoking the ripples of the river and the sadness of mood, Harari’s glittering intensity gave expression to the aria’s underlying dejection. In the role of Esther, Claire Meghnagi gave a very forthright and convincing reading of the texts, her voice rich in coloratura luster. In “Flatt’ring tongue, no more I hear thee!” she was regal, assertive wily and defiant, her competent performance producing fine drama. In the extended aria of “Tears assist me”, her singing was empathic, creamy and well shaped. Jeffrey Francis’ (USA) expansive, well anchored tenor voice and strong connection with the text lent authority and depth of character to the role of Ahasuerus. In “O beauteous queen”, bristling with dance rhythms, he sings into key words, creating its theatrical substance, its ardor and intensiveness, together with tenderness. The superbly crafted duet “Who calls my parting soul from death?” he shared with Meghnagi gave expression to the story’s passion and warmth. Mordecai (David Nortman), Esther’s cousin, is the oratorio’s voice of moral conscience, however commanding less authority in the Händel version than in the biblical Book of Esther. Nortman cuts a sympathetic- rather than a stern image; in his aria “Dread not, righteous queen, the danger” the violins leap in playful off-beat figures around Nortman’s imploring, cantabile singing. As the scheming Haman, Oded Reich’s well-endowed vocal sound was as pleasing as it was gripping. In the feisty “Pluck root and branch from out of the land”, with its punchy dotted rhythms adding potency to the text, he used consonants to underline the character’s villainous personality. The tables are turned on him in his heart-rending singing of “Turn not, O queen, thy face away” (introduced by the pathos of the orchestra’s falling intervals) and in his portrayal of the condemned man in “How art thou fall’n from thy height!” with the vocal line demanding a series of plunging leaps.
Providing constant interest and textual update, singers of the Israeli Vocal Ensemble (director: Yuval Benozer) gave meaning and much beautiful choral beauty to each chorus. Their fine diction and attention to each subject addressed kept the audience eager to hear each new utterance: their fiery mirroring of Haman’s text in “Shall we the God of Israel fear?”, the plaintive “Ye sons of Israel mourn”, the incisive and dramatic “Save us O Lord, And blunt the wrathful sword”, the explicit empathy in the chorus of Israelites’ “Virtue, truth and innocence”, followed by their vehement handling of words in the climactic “He comes, He comes to end our woes”. The IVE goes from strength to strength.
A seldom performed work, “Esther” is of major significance, marking the beginning of the illustrious English oratorio tradition, with the emergence of the Händelian dramatic chorus. It features harmonic interest and imaginative orchestration as well as some of Händel’s finest arias and, as we heard, superb choruses. Here was a fine opportunity to get to know the work, with Stern and the Barrocade Ensemble performing it with articulacy, involvement and with a sensitive ear to the soloists. Including a Baroque trumpet would have made for that specific Händelian textural gleam; the obbligato players, however, did a fine job. Commendable were oboists Amir Backman and Shira Ben Yehoshua; bassoonist Inbar Navot was outstanding. Eitan Hoffer’s theorbo playing added silvery delicacy to the performance.