Phan’s belated entrance provides boost to Music of the Baroque’s “Esther”

By Lawrence A. Johnson, Chicago Classical Review
February 28, 2018

On paper, everything looked promising for Music of the Baroque’s premiere performances of Handel’s Esther. Jane Glover excels in Handel rarities, the cast looked strong and the composer’s early quasi-oratorio is chock full of ingratiating music for soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Yet Tuesday’s performance at the Harris Theater was one of those nights when the music stayed stubbornly earthbound for the first half of the evening. No factor by itself was fatal—but a combination of uneven solo singing, shaky choral ensemble and consistently slow tempos made for a Handel experience more desultory than inspired.

Once the ever-reliable Nicholas Phan entered the proceedings as the king Assuerus, his energized singing and vibrant tone provided an immediate adrenaline shot, igniting his colleagues and lifting the entire performance.

Not that Esther doesn’t need help. Presented in its original, more concise 1718 version, Esther is more of a masque-plus than a full-out oratorio. The work is an undeniable mess structurally, with an even more episodic, nonlinear libretto then usual in the genre. (Motivation is murky at best for non-Biblical scholars.) The title Israeli heroine doesn’t appear until halfway through the 90-minute work, with the various Israelites getting more music than her. As Glover put it in her engaging introduction, one can best view Esther as a Handel “experiment” in setting sacred texts to music, paving the way for works like Saul and Messiah to come.

What Esther does have is inspired music for several soloists and, especially, the chorus, with the rousing final ensemble showing that the heaven-storming choruses of Messiah are not too distant on the horizon.

Part of the reason for the bifurcated nature of Tuesday’s performance is likely due to the layout of Esther with slow, mournful music for the Israelites dominating the first half.

Colin Ainsworth as Israelite 1 and Mordecai brought a sweet, pliant tenor to “Tune your harps to cheerful strains,” yet seemed insecure and fitfully pitchy at the top of his range.

Two chorus members were a mixed bag at best in their solo assignments as Israelites 2 and 3. Sarah Gartshore’s singing was capable though her words were indecipherable in “Praise the Lord with cheerful noise.” Countertenor Biraj Barkakaty’s wan, piping timbre proved something of a trial in his extended solo arias.

The dramatic incisiveness and theatrical frisson provided by Phan was a welcome relief, and the tenor’s warm and expressive “O beauteous queen” delivered the vocal highlight of the evening.

In the title role, Heidi Stober made the most of her scant opportunities, lashing out at the villain Haman with bright tone and fiery defiance in “Flatt’ring tongue, no more I hear thee!”

MOB once again fielded a baritone, Christòpheren Nomura, for the bass role of the villain Haman. (Is there a drastic shortage of basses in the world? Why has using baritones for specific bass roles become acceptable standard practice?) Nomura’s phrase ends tended to fade out in “Pluck root and branch from out the land”; but like everything else, the baritone improved after intermission, plumbing a vein of defeated sadness in Haman’s final two arias that almost made one feel sorry for the old reprobate.

The MOB Chorus rose to the challenge of the extended–and somewhat repetitious–final chorus with apt jubilation and commitment. Barbara Butler’s gleaming trumpet added virtuosic sizzle to the festive, triumphant coda.

Jane Glover leads Music of the Baroque in Bach’s St. John Passion 3 p.m. March 25 at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie and 7:30 p.m. March 26 at the Harris Theater.