The prospect of MIRYAM Baroque Ensemble’s East Coast premiere of an early-Classical oratorio on the Biblical Esther to a Hebrew text piqued BMInt’s interest (HERE). About 150 people came to Emmanuel Church / Central Reform Temple in Boston to hear the event, just a few days before Purim, which will begin on March 20th. Titulaires of the Jewish and Episcopal congregations pointed out not only the ecumenical significance, but also the political meaning of the Esther story during the 15 minutes after the planned start time. The oratorio repeated Sunday afternoon at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley. The historical significance of this gesture of reintroduction is what this writer most appreciated. And we also welcomed the 20-page program booklet, which was elegantly edited, handsomely printed with the complete text in Hebrew and transliteration on left-hand pages, and English translation with Talmud-like commentary on the right-hand pages. (How come the facsimile on the back cover, as retrieved from the Ets Haim Library in Amsterdam, showed the beginning of the 18th-century libretto in Hebrew with English headings?)
One observes that the libretto of Esther, adapted from the same text used by Handel in 1716 (and revised in 1732), is stylized and perhaps filtered to weed out any specifically Christian background, but it still is replete with references to divine justice and God’s mercy, ending with a resounding Hallelujah (Praise the Lord). But the name of God is never mentioned in the canonical Book of Esther, and this lack accounts for the carnival spirit that usually prevails when the Megillah is read at Purim — I heard a rabbi shout once to the crowd, “This is one that we win!” And we don’t forget that the story is likely older than the Jews themselves (Mordecai = Marduk, Esther = Ishtar; check your Golden Bough).
Cristiano Giuseppe Lidarti (b. 1730, d. after 1793), an Austrian composer of Italian ancestry, wrote the music for the Hebrew Esther. His style has been compared to that of early Mozart or Haydn, but Gluck’s music makes a better comparison stylistically and chronologically; Esther provided a good illustration of music that is pleasantly and competently composed but that reveals only a third-rate imagination. Despite the enticements to invention offered by the legend itself, a remarkable uniformity of mood prevailed. The lack of drama, and an almost interminable succession (ten of them, plus three duets) of formally impoverished da capo arias made a case for some cuts. Handel told the story with drama and wit in 90 minutes. Three hours of Lidarti proved especially hard to take, with one intermission after the lengthy Act I. As an expert on harmony and tonal structure, I listened closely and ever hopefully for some signatures of harmonic originality or even mild surprise, and failed to hear anything out of the very ordinary 18th-century norm. Galant it may have been, but mostly dull.
Some of the choral numbers were agreeable enough, especially when wrought in imitative counterpoint, though seldom departing from tonic and dominant and pedal points; “Shiru l’Elohim” (sing to God) in I/3 had a stolid majesty. And Esther’s aria in II/2, “Husah na al Yisroel” (Take pity, please, upon Israel), showed a certain expressive pathos that was missing elsewhere.
Orchestrally there was a good deal of concitato in the fast pieces — too much, sometimes, and too uniform — and a lot of dotted rhythm. But the concitato excitement was generally too tame even for Esther’s outrage at the evil Haman, in a placid D major. The orchestration itself showed nothing distinctive. The ensemble was small — two flutes, two oboes, two horns, and strings 3-2-1-1-1. The first violins had a dismaying tendency to fudge the fingering in fast scale passages, with a muddy or even chaotic sound, and there was a painful moment when half the violins couldn’t agree whether their cadencing note was A-flat or A, and they replicated this twinge exactly in repeats a few bars later. The warm sound of wooden flutes gratified, but they sounded only seldom. As for the natural horns, they splattered so many notes that they revealed a definite lack of readiness for prime time, especially in the perilously high B-flat alto register. Dylan Sauerwald governed the whole ensemble from the harpsichord, which was scarcely audible most of the time; he kept things together, but the pauses between numbers always ran too long, and one wonders whether more rehearsal, which seemed to be needed in other quarters as well, would have speeded things up and enabled many of the numbers to have dragged less in tempo.
Esther, like so many in the oratorio genre, is a vehicle for solo singers even more than for the chorus. Ensemble director Alicia DePaolo brought a rich soprano to the title role, but it took her some time to warm up, and her excessive vibrato was sometimes troubling; by Act II she was in fine condition. Elise Groves as the Israelite Lady, a choryphaeic role, also took time to warm up, but her tone was very clear. Corey Hart, tenor, singing Mordocai, was the best of the male singers, clear and expressive; Jacob Cooper, baritone, sang Haman with plainly evil expression but not much musical tone, while Elijah Hopkin, in the larger role of Ahasveros, never seemed to be in full voice — he got tired reaching the high A — nor indeed much interested in what he was singing. Nor did any of the singers, except perhaps Cooper, articulate words as if from an actual language.
This East Coast premiere by the MIRYAM Baroque Ensemble was disappointing for several reasons, above all the poverty of the music, but efforts of discovery, even when disappointing, are ever necessary to our art.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, harmony.