03 May 2013

Rare restoration: Handel’s Esther 1720

Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.

The Dunedin Consort’s 2012 recording of ‘the first reconstructable version, 1720, was highly acclaimed; it was the result of research by musicologist John H. Roberts which identified the music which was intended for a private performance in 1720 at the residence of James Bridges, later Duke of Chandos, and that which Handel added subsequently for the 1732 revival.

This Wigmore Hall performance, the only London appearance in 2013 of the acclaimed Edinburgh-based ensemble, was musically accomplished but, excepting the contribution of one or two individuals, did not consistently generate sufficient dramatic and narrative impetus.

Part of the problem is the libretto, attributed to Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot and based on a Racine play, which lacks the dramatic √©lan of the biblical book of Esther and has narrative inconsistencies that are probably a result of the various revisions and re-workings. In the opening scene, Haman, henchman to the Persian King, Assuerus, proclaims an order that all the Jews are to be massacred. Ironically, at that time they are celebrating the felicitous news that Esther has been chosen as queen following a search for a woman to replace the disobedient Queen Vashti, and are ignorant of the threat to their race. Morcedai, leader of the Jewish community in Persia and guardian to Esther, informs Esther of the news and begs her to intervene with the King. She approaches Assuerus with dread, fearful that she will be punished by the law that condemns anyone who enters the King’s presence; but Assuerus admits her and then avows his love. In the final act, the King offers Esther anything she desires - he seems strangely unaware of her Jewish identity and even of Haman’s decree. Esther convinces Assuerus of Haman’s treachery and the latter is sentenced to death while the Jews are granted their freedom.

As Haman, bass Matthew Brook recognised the need to make the most of the text, and deftly created a villainous stage persona in his Act 1 aria, ‘Pluck root and branch from out the land’, delivering a punchy vocal line and terse dotted rhythms. In the magnificent Act 3 aria, ‘How art thou fall’n from thy height!’, Brook declaimed powerfully above the inexorable bass line with its plunging intervals, wonderfully conveying the mixed emotions of the condemned man.

Similarly tenor James Gilchrist (Assuerus) sang with expressive and well-measured urgency. His Act 2 duet with Esther (Mhairi Lawson), ‘Awake My Soul, My Life, My Breath!’ was full of ardency and eagerness, the thrill of passion embodied in his tone a striking contrast to the spectral, pianissimo chords of the accompaniment, restrained and dry until a slight blossoming of warmth and colour at the close. The following ‘O beauteous Queen, unclose those eyes!’ possessed an earnest ardour, the text repetitions given true shape and meaning as Gilchrist crafted a substantial musico-dramatic structure. His recitatives were likewise authoritative and full of impact.
Soprano Mhairi Lawson demonstrated both the coloratura lustre and quiet nuance that the role of Esther requires, subtly shading her imploring line, ‘Who calls my parting soul from death?’ in her Act 2 duet with Assuerus, and assertively declaring her defiance in her Act 3 aria, ‘Flatt’ring tongue, no more I hear thee!’ The extended melodies of the Act 2 aria, ‘Tears assist me’, were fluent and exquisitely shaped. But, overall she did not quite convey the regal assurance of the soon-to-be queen.

Nicholas Mulroy sang the long lines of Mordecai’s Act 2 aria cleanly but with little tonal variety and his forte outbursts occasionally seemed a little forced. Given the sparse string textures one might have expected the text to be more distinct. Although a little unyielding initially, tenor Thomas Hobbs (First Israelite) relaxed in the da capo repeat of ‘Tune your hearts to cheerful strains’ and the elegant nuances of the oboe solo and pizzicato strings brought a mood of easeful joy. As the Priest of the Israelites, countertenor Tim Mead was technically assured but struggled to fulfil the challenge of controlling and shaping the long aria which forms a climax to Act 1.

In the programme article, conductor John Butt makes much of the ‘greater emphasis’ placed on the chorus, in comparison to Handel’s Italianate works, noting that the composer was drawing on both the German choral tradition and the resources available in English cathedrals, colleges and private homes at the time. Butt led the chorus of 10 (the soloists supplemented by countertenor Rory McCleery and bass Jim Holliday) in vigorous fashion but as an ensemble they did not always respond to his direction; one would expect such slender forces, accompanied by small chamber orchestra, to be characterised by a nimble, airy brightness but at times the choral numbers seemed somewhat flat and unresponsive. The delivery of the text lacked buoyancy, even in the final ‘Hallelujah Chorus-inspired’ choral proclamation, “For ever blessed be thy holy name’; here, while the massed sound was majestic, the repetitions of ‘ever’ acquired increasing weight, one which resulted in a rather emphatic heaviness rather than emotional excitement. In the opening scene of Act 3, the chorus joyfully welcome their saviour, but despite the vigorous string playing the choral cries, ‘Earth trembles’, were remarkably polite, the ‘r’ genteelly rolled.

The instrumentalists were similarly well-marshalled but despite poise, accuracy and sure technique, there was not always a sense that they truly breathed Handel’s rhythms, and Butt’s tempi were often conservative. But, if the ensemble lacked a fiery spark, there was much fine solo playing. The lyrical overture showcased Katharina Speckelsen’s beautiful oboe playing, which was matched by the delicate grace of Carina Cosgrave’s flute obbligato in the Israelite Boy’s aria, ‘Praise the Lord with cheerful noise’, sung sweetly by Rachel Redmond. The strings punctuated the secco recitative incisively, as in the Priest’s Act 1 Scene 3 ‘How have our sins provok’d the Lord!’; in the aria which follows, the voice contrasted effectively with striking string unisons and declamatory interjections. The accompanied recitative was similarly coloured by orchestral texture and tone, Haman’s ‘Turn not, O Queen’ enriched by plangent repeated string notes, the twisting chromatic bass directly the harmony to strange realms. And, Assuerus’ excited aria, ‘How can I stay, when love invites?’, was enlivened further by some agile bassoon playing. The crisp articulation, splendid trills and focused countermelodies of the trumpet and horns brought nobility to the final act.

The stage platform was rather crowded and perhaps this inhibited the performers’ dramatic energy; overall, there was some fine singing and playing, but - while acknowledging that the Wigmore Hall is an intimate venue - there was little sense of a desire to communicate the heart of the emotional drama - the passion of an oppressed people - with immediacy and directness. Butt’s reference to the ‘English context’ of cathedral and collegiate choirs may indeed be pertinent, for such establishments were the training ground for many of the soloists and indeed the conductor himself. The result was a performance of a sacred drama in which the ecclesiastical dimension perhaps outweighed dramatic imperatives.

Claire Seymour


Cast and production information:

Mhairi Lawson, soprano - Esther; James Gilchrist, tenor - Assuerus & Habdonah; Matthew Brook, bass-baritone - Haman; Nicholas Mulroy, tenor - Mordecai; Thomas Hobbs, tenor - First Israelite; Tim Mead, countertenor - Priest; Malcolm Bennett, tenor - Officer & Second Israelite; Rachel Redmond, soprano - Israelite Boy. The Dunedin Consort, Wigmore Hall, London, 25th April 2013. Image : Esther before Ahasueras : Artemesia Gentileschi