MOB ventures rare Handel oratorio

By John Von Rhein, Chicago Tribune
February 28, 2018

The Handel oratorios have been lingua franca at Music of the Baroque from the earliest seasons of the Chicago ensemble under Thomas Wikman. His successors, music director Jane Glover and principal guest conductor Nicholas Kraemer, have proudly kept the flame alive in recent decades. Glover’s performances this week of Handel’s first English oratorio, “Esther,” took the exploration into uncharted territory.

The slender work, halfway between a masque and a full-fledged oratorio, is based on the playwright Racine’s adaptation of the Old Testament tale of how the Jewess Esther saved her Israelite kinsmen from mass slaughter at the hands of the evil Persian minister Haman. The awkward structure leaves too many holes in the narrative and doesn’t heat up until the final two scenes. It’s best to think of “Esther” as a promissory note for greater Handel oratorios to come.

Although those were the very parts of Tuesday’s Harris Theater performance I was forced to miss, there was enough rewarding music in the first four scenes to reaffirm Glover’s reputation as a Handelian of the first order, firm of command and powerful in her dramatic insight.

Working from what is generally accepted to be the 1718 original version, Glover had her chorus of 13 voices (prepared by director William Jon Gray) and orchestra of 18 players fully engaged with the largely reflective music that sets the stage for the unseen climactic events. Strong forward motion, finely blended choral laments and incisive instrumental rhythms dovetailed with generally fine solo work.

Of the solo singers I was able to hear, the standout was Colin Ainsworth as Esther’s kinsman Mordecai and the first Israelite, whose immaculate diction, dulcet timbre and sensitivity of expression were ideal for the aria “Tune your harps,” with its haunting oboe obbligato and plucked-string accompaniment.

Soprano Heidi Stober made a radiant Esther, Sarah Gartshore sang well as the second Israelite and Christopheren Nomura raged fearsomely as the villain Haman. The one disappointment was Biraj Barkakaty as the third Israelite, whose smallish countertenor failed to project adequately over the orchestra. The ever-dependable tenor Nicholas Phan took the key role of the Persian king Assuerus.