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Reviews

<em>Esther</em>: London Handel Festival, Wigmore Hall
25 Mar 2018

Handel's first 'Israelite oratorio': Esther at the London Handel Festival

It’s sometimes suggested that it was the simultaneous decline of the popularity of Italian opera seria among Georgian audiences and, in consequence, of the fortunes of Handel’s Royal Academy King’s Theatre, that led the composer to turn his hand to oratorio in English, the genre which would endear him to the hearts of the nation.

Esther: London Handel Festival, Wigmore Hall

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Erica Eloff

 

In fact, Handel’s first ‘Israelite oratorio’, Esther, dates from Handel’s early years in London. Like Acis and Galatea, which the London Handel Festival had presented at St. John’s Smith Square a few days earlier, it was written for James Brydges (later Duke of Chandos) and thought to have been performed at Cannons, Brydges’ Middlesex estate, during 1718-20.

The libretto, which was probably fashioned by the poets Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot, is a dramatic adaptation of the Old Testament narrative, in which the pious Esther acts to save the threatened Israelites from a pogrom at the hands of their Persian oppressors, and Jean Racine’s play Esther of 1688 (which had been seen in London in 1715 in an English paraphrase by Thomas Brereton), which emphasises the challenge to God’s authority and the divine salvation of the Israelite people. Musicologists and commentators have sought allegorical relevance in the affirmation of Jewish courage and conviction but have been as likely to suggest a parallel between the English Anglicans and the ‘Chosen People’ as to see the Jewish minority as representative of the English Catholics within a Protestant majority. When the worked received its ‘public’ premiere, in London in 1732, additional text by Samuel Humphreys enhanced the connection to the Hanoverians through implied compliments to George II and Queen Caroline.

This performance by the London Handel Orchestra at Wigmore Hall was stylishly directed by Adrian Butterfield, who fulfilled a dual role as violinist-conductor. In fact, with such an accomplished band of musicians before him, I wondered if Butterfield might not have relinquished his fiddle on this occasion; for, while the vocal standards were high, not all of the young soloists were equally adept at creating character and developing the narrative momentum. The numbers that were most successful were the choruses, when Butterfield laid his violin aside and stood to conduct, creating exciting drive and momentum.

Indeed, one might feel that Handel’s finest achievements in Esther are the choral sections: the contrasting joy - when the Jews rejoice that Esther, a believer, has become Queen - and despair, when they learn of Haman’s vicious decree that they should be annihilated; their confident assertion, ‘He comes!’, that God will defend them; and the magnificent triumphal chorus which closes the oratorio. Almost all of the soloists joined to form the choral ensemble, producing a lively, bright sound, with the strings’ generating zip and vigour and Darren Moore’s trumpet adding majesty and jubilance to the final triumph: ‘The Lord our enemy has slain’.

The instrumental contributions in the arias were no less affecting and accomplished. Stephen Mills’ relaxed, pure tenor was graciously accompanied by the violins’ gentle pizzicato and James Eastaway’s beautiful oboe obbligato, as the First Israelite expressed the people’s unwavering trust in ‘great Jehovah’, and Mills’ clean tone was equally well-suited to persuading us of the condemned Mordecai’s faith. The horns (Gavin Edwards and Clare Penkey) added relish to the glorification of Jehovah of the start of Act 3.

Best of the soloists was Erica Eloff as the eponymous saviour of the nation. The winner of the 2008 Handel Singing Competition, Eloff has impressed before ( Adriano in Siria , Elpidia ) and on this occasion I was struck by the extended range of colours that the South African soprano deployed to convey Esther’s love, fear, doubts and hopes. She really made the text count in Esther’s first air, capturing the deep sincerity of the queen’s prayer, and her angry dismissal of Haman’s ‘flatt’ring tongue’ left none in doubt of Esther’s inner strength, an impression which grew in the elaborated repetitions of the aria’s da capo. Eloff even managed a convincing ‘faint’ when Esther quakes in fear before Ahasverus as she pleads for Mordecai’s deliverance, before reviving to invite her lord to a banquet at which she intends to expose Haman’s vendetta with sufficient beauty of voice and manner to convince Ahasverus to submit to his wife’s entreaties.

As Ahasverus, William Wallace - in common with some of the other soloists - took a little while to judge the acoustic of Wigmore Hall, in which a capacity audience was seated. Initially he forced his tenor a little too much, but as Esther’s appeals worked their magic, Wallace’s voice relaxed and charmed in ‘O beauteous Queen’. Baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé colourfully revealed Haman’s vengeful exasperation in the oratorio’s opening aria, expressing his indignant fury with plenty of bluster, though a little less might have been more - the diction was rather muddy.

Timothy Morgan was also somewhat over-earnest as the First Priest of the Israelites, which affected his tuning at times, but Morgan’s counter-tenor is appealing, and he communicated with directness. As the Israelite Boy, Camilla Harris displayed a lovely sheen and graceful phrasing in her single aria, which was further enhanced by exquisite interplay from the pianissimo violins, flute (Rachel Brown) and harp (Frances Kelly). Tenors Ben Smith (Habdonah) and Laurence Kilsby (Officer/Second Israelite) completed the accomplished vocal ensemble.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Esther HWV50
London Handel Orchestra: director/violin - Adrian Butterfield.

Esther - Erica Eloff, Ahasverus - William Wallace, Haman - Josep-Ramon Olivé, Israelite Boy - Camilla Harris, Priest of the Israelites - Timothy Morgan, Mordecai/First Israelite - Stephen Mills, Habdonah - Ben Smith, Officer/Second Israelite - Laurence Kilsby.

Wigmore Hall, London; Thursday 22nd March 2018.

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