Last Friday evening (April 1) in Sanders Theater, the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, conducted by Andrew Clark, and joined by a portion of the Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra, performed Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt. Handel’s second venture into oratorio after the collapse of his operatic career in London, its first performance was received without great enthusiasm, possibly (as the program notes discuss) because the high proportion of choral numbers was unsatisfying to an audience used to aria-dominated operas. This very quality, however, was to endear the oratorio to the innumerable Handel-crazy choral societies that flourished in the nineteenth century. The success of this unconventional aspect of the structure can still be debated; personally, I thought the first half much more interesting and dramatic (what with all the plagues) than the second half, and moreover, the second half, though beautifully written, is longer than the first, and thus the whole seems misproportioned.
Regardless of the length of the work, however, I confess that I was glad, under the circumstances, of the chorus-heavy structure. The Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, for all it is composed of over-worked students, is a jolly good chorus —well-tuned, colorful, lively, and very good at enunciation, especially considering its size. (In only one respect do I wish they could restrain their enthusiasm: I thoroughly understand the temptation to dance to many of Handel’s more energetic movements, but it is distracting — not to say comical — when the entire chorus is swaying to and fro like wind-blown reeds.) The problem was that Friday’s soloists were simply not in the same class as the chorus. None of them were unmusical, but none of them was first-rate. Gerrod Pagenkopf, the countertenor, has a voice like a fog of treacle, uncertain consonants, and, moreoever, sings so softly that he was in danger of being drowned out even by very reduced forces of the H&H playing softly. Charles Blandy, the tenor, had better projection, but sounded strained (though he softened his voice very tactfully for the duet with Pagenkopf). The two sopranos, Susan Consoli and Margot Rood, had pleasant voices, and their duet in the second half was quite lovely, but they were not terribly exciting, and Consoli’s unaccompanied passages in the final number (for soprano and double chorus) mostly ended up flat, with disagreeable effect when the orchestra and chorus came in again at the correct pitch. The two baritones were both afflicted with slow wide vibrato, and unreliable intonation, particularly in the lower reaches. Admittedly Graham Wright (bass-baritone) came in at what must have been a few hours’ notice to replace Joshua Sekoski, who cancelled for the unexpected arrival of a new son that morning.
On the whole however, I was heartily glad that the soloists had so little, comparatively, to do, and that the chorus and the orchestra (splendid, as is usual from H&H) had so much. And while it did seem to me that Handel did not judge the proportions of the piece with his usual skill, it is so well-written, and so replete with hilarious madrigal-esque passages (the whine and hum of “all manner of flies and lice,” the eerie soft low passage for the “thick darkness over the land” and so on), that I was very well entertained. Once, I confess, inadvertently, when I thought the chorus announced that “Egypt was mad when they departed”; of course I presume that Egypt was glad, not mad, but unfortunately, the program, otherwise very informative, proved to be missing some verses from the libretto. On the whole, however, it was a pleasant evening, and the enthusiasm of the student audience —cheering and howling from the balcony — was most charming.