Handel's Esther, Pivotal Oratorio, Scores as Drama

By Kyle MacMillan, Classical Voice North America
March 05, 2018

CHICAGO — Although the 1720 version of Handel’s Esther might not have the sweep or grandeur of some of his later concert works, it is easy to understand what drew Jane Glover, the music director of Music of the Baroque, to this early setting for the first time. Not only is the nascent oratorio a pivotal stepping stone in Handel’s development as a composer; it is also a compelling drama in its own right.

Glover, who is a first-rate music scholar, has a new book, Handel in London, coming in September, and Esther will no doubt have a significant place in it. Music of the Baroque has presented ten of Handel’s oratorios and other dramatic works. Esther now joins that list– not the famous 1732 work (HWV 50b), but the smaller, seldom–heard version from 1720 (HWV 50a), based on music from a 1718 masque.

With Glover at the helm, the Music of the Baroque Orchestra and Chorus made a strong case for this rarity at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance on Feb. 27. Handel began composing the music for what would become the first English oratorio while serving in 1717-18 as resident composer for James Brydges, the Duke of Chandos, who had a large estate north of London called Cannons. Glover used an ensemble of just 18 musicians and 13 choristers, which mimicked the size of the group that scholars believe Handel had at his disposal at Cannons. That modest force brought a welcome intimacy and immediacy.

As usual, Glover’s conducting was wonderfully natural and organic. There was a sense of her forces embracing this music and really inhabiting it. The playing was lively and vivid, with the pace never lagging. Even though this orchestra performs on modern instruments, there was a historically informed sensibility that could be heard in the lightness and translucency of the sound. It didn’t hurt that the ensemble included a deep-throated theorbo played by Hideki Yamaya.

The small size of the orchestra allowed many of its players to shine forth, such as trumpeter Barbara Butler, who enlivened the final chorus of Scene 6, “The Lord our enemy has slain,” and oboist Anne Bach, who carried on an entrancing dialogue with tenor Colin Ainsworth at the beginning of Scene 2, “Tune your hearts to cheerful strains.” Also deserving note is Stephen Alltop, who doubled on harpsichord and organ, ably anchoring the ensemble all evening.

Handel’s drama is based on Jean Racine’s 1689 play, Esther, which is in turn drawn from an Old Testament book that is little known now but was widely familiar to audiences when Handel wrote: Esther is a Jewish orphan who has become wife to the Persian king Assuerus. Haman, a kind of court minister, feels wronged when Mordecai, a relative of Esther, does not bow to him. As revenge, Haman orders the death of all Jews in the kingdom.

The soloists were a bit of a mixed bag, but the two singers who really counted were very good – tenor Nicholas Phan as Assuerus and soprano Heidi Stober as Esther. The work’s heart and soul lies in the intense, extended conversation in which Esther exhorts her husband to countermand Haman’s order. Even though the music was not staged, Phan and Stober brought a forceful dramatic sensibility to their roles, and there was a real sense of interchange between the two. Though perhaps not in his best voice, Phan was nonetheless completely convincing as Assuerus.

A technically secure and expressive singer, Phan brought a stirring sense of urgency as Assuerus tries to assuage Esther’s fear and angrily deals with Haman. Stober’s performance was perhaps a bit more understated but no less involving. She has a natural stage presence and seemed easily at one with this role, commanding attention every time she sang.

Colin Ainsworth who sang with affecting clarity and punch when necessary, capably handled roles including Mordecai, and baritone Christòpheren Nomura was solid as Haman. Perhaps the biggest star of the evening was the chorus, which was stunning in every way, especially its adroit handling of Handel’s rich counterpoint and rhythmic variety. Of course, it helped that the composer gave the singers so much material to work with, including no shortage of choruses that were just two stanzas long but offered abundant depth. A good example is “Ye sons of Israel mourn, ye never to your country shall return!” The chorus mined the full poignancy of this slow, moving section.

Esther concludes with its longest chorus, a bold, uplifting section that has a “Hallelujah”-like power exuberantly realized by the singers. Other highlights included the chorus’ propulsive take on a resounding stanza as the Israelites rally, “Earth trembles, lofty mountains nod!” Handel has definitely found a home at Music of the Baroque. And with performances like this one, that’s something to be celebrated.

Kyle MacMillan served as the classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and Modern Luxury and writes for such national publications as the Wall Street Journal, Opera News, Chamber Music, and Early Music America.