in: Reviews

February 21, 2011

Musical-Dramatic Israel in Egypt

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The Handel and Haydn Society, the longest continually-running musical society in the United States and an integral part of Boston’s early-music tradition, presented its performance of Handel’s oratorio, Israel in Egypt, on February 18, at Boston’s Symphony Hall, which as ever provided an ideal space and setting for grand musical works. Israel in Egypt was the first of Handel’s oratorios to achieve a high level of commercial success in England.

This performance also was a great success, featuring a number of very stirring moments. Harry Christophers’s commanding direction was strong, including a few highly dramatic gestures in the opening and closing choruses; Christophers’s pacing between selections was particularly effective in leading the performers as well as the audience through the musical-dramatic progression of the work. The chorus was strong, smooth, and well-balanced with the orchestra’s polished and well-finessed performance. The decision to perform an earlier version of the work, which features fewer arias than its later counterparts and therefore requires fewer “breaks” in the narrative, also helped to sustain dramatic pacing. Although this earlier version is dominated by the chorus, the performance also featured a number of vocal soloists and duets.

In the overture, the orchestra showed a great deal of sensitivity and expressivity without betraying the Baroque aesthetic of discretion, a fault which has led to many overly “Romantic” interpretations of Handel’s works. The first large section (“The Lamentation of the Israelites for the Death of Joseph”) opens with the chorus, “The Sons of Israel Do Mourn,” part of a long series of choruses which features the work’s most well-known chorus, namely “How are the mighty fall’n?” (an apt sentiment in the discussion of Egypt, then and now!). The chorus showed particular deftness in the juxtaposition of lyrical melody with the weightier countermelody in the ubiquitous fugal textures of these choruses. The “sighing” figure of the opening chorus was very effective, though the final sibilances of the words “bitterness” and “provinces” in the same chorus decidedly overbalanced the chorus’s otherwise lighter verbal articulations. The unaccompanied opening of the final chorus (“Their bodies are buried in peace”) was particularly moving, as the chorus displayed emotive power through its dramatic restraint.

In keeping with the tradition of the oratorio, this opening section that sets the dramatic situation is followed by a section which features the active narrative, in this case the freeing of the Israelites from the Egyptians through divine intervention. (The section is referred to as the “Exodus” in Handel’s score.) As those familiar with the work (or the story itself) know, the story begins with the plagues sent against Egypt and ends with Israel’s escape through the Red Sea; in this version of the work, Handel sets the narrative as a series of choruses, with one aria and a pair of narrative recitatives. For this large section, the composer uses a great deal of text painting (including a few instances of individual word-painting) in the depiction of the gruesome plagues as well as the miraculous parting of the Red Sea. The Society’s singing was very effective, again helped by the dramatic character engendered by Christophers himself; the change of musical character between the neighboring choruses on the final plague (the death of Egypt’s firstborns) and Israel’s deliverance was especially gratifying. As in the “Lamentation” section, the chorus’s rendition of “And the children of Israel sighed by reason of their bondage” featured an impressive display of timbral juxtaposition between the lighter and heavier fugue themes. However, the singers did not seem to take full advantage of the dramatic potential of Handel’s setting of certain textual phrases and words, particularly the “rigor” word (which describes the labor set upon the Israelites by their Egyptian taskmasters). Tenor Stefan Reed served as the narrator in this section; Reed’s performance in this role was admirable, offering effective declamation of the quickly-moving text. The aria from this section, “Their land brought forth frogs,” was sung by alto Abigail Levis; Levis displayed a high level of technical ability, also affecting a highly dramatic declamatory style.

Following the narrative-dramatic “Exodus” and again in keeping with the oratorio tradition, the closing section of Handel’s work features a series of reflections and rejoicings on the events, described by Handel as “Moses’s Song.” The composer set this final large section as a series of arias, duets, and choruses. In a slight break with tradition, though, Handel did include two brief narrative recitatives, the first describing the demise of the Egyptian army, the second intoning Miriam’s song ( the latter serving as the work’s closing chorus). Certain soloists and duets stood out in this section, including an impressive display of vocal technique and elegance between sopranos Teresa Wakim and Brenna Wells in the duet, “The Lord is my strength.” Stefan Reed, mentioned above as the narrator of the “Exodus,” returned as a soloist, offering a dramatically expressive and technically impressive rendition of “The enemy said.” Alto Emily Marvosh offered perhaps the most impressive solo performance of the evening, as her smooth, apparently effortless vocal display perfectly encompassed the conciliatory text, “Thou shalt bring them in,” offering a moving musical-textual reading. The closing chorus, in keeping with Handel’s own tradition, was a truly stirring musical event, and a thrilling close to the evening’s performance.

Joel Schwindt is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in musicology at Brandeis University. In addition to performances as a vocalist and conductor, his writings have been published by the Baerenreiter-Verlag publishing house and the Choral Journal.
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